Despite its intrinsically fascinating subject matter and winning cast, The Monuments Men is no treasure.
Based on the real-life exploits of a World War II platoon tasked with rescuing priceless art from Nazi destruction and returning the masterpieces to their rightful owners, the movie (* * out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday nationwide) is genial and well-intentioned, but tepid.
A mid-'00s documentary on the same subject, The Rape of Europa, was far more compelling than director/co-writer/co-star George Clooney's superficial look at an unlikely mission by a cadre of museum directors, art historians and curators. (The documentary focused on how the Nazis looted Europe's great museums and private art collections with the intent of stocking a Third Reich museum.)
This version of the story comes off like a flat sitcom set amid the horrors of war. The fictionalizing of the platoon's specific antics, compressing of events and scenes played for broad laughs undercut the poignant heroism of their work. An exception is the moving scene in which British art lover Donald Jeffries (Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville) attempts to save Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges.
While the cast is impressive, the story lacks a strong sense of character development. Everyone comes off like cardboard cutouts rather than fully drawn individuals. A scene in which the men struggle through basic training fizzles in its comic ambitions.
Clooney plays ringleader Frank Stokes, a Harvard art historian and World War I veteran who persuades President Franklin D. Roosevelt to send in a team of experts to locate and preserve Europe's greatest art. The crew includes Americans James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), as well as Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and German ex-pat Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas). Rounding out the effort is Parisian museum curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who is initially resistant, then helps Granger with the recovery.
Specifics that differentiate the strengths and key traits of each character are glossed over and sometimes simply ignored.
While the story has moments of liveliness and spurts of believable camaraderie among the artistically minded men, it is sometimes disjointed and lacking in emotional depth. The incongruously jaunty score by composer Alexandre Desplat undercuts the lofty message of people willing to die to save art.
It's a particular disappointment coming from Clooney who, as a filmmaker, has directed some undeniably smart and nuanced films such as Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March.
Here he seems torn between approaching the story with a sense of reverence and making it a more mainstream, oversimplified entertainment. He settles on a pedestrian perspective, and slack pacing does it no favors.
Monuments Men is a tribute to unsung heroes. But given its breezy, surface-skimming treatment of the subject, the audience is unlikely to feel the gravity of their achievements.