It’s not only the great works of European art that have gone missing in “The Monuments Men”; the spark of writer-director-star George Clooney’s filmmaking is absent, too. In adapting writer Robert M. Edsel’s account of the men charged with protecting the Western world’s aesthetic treasures from wartime destruction, Clooney has transformed a fascinating true-life tale into an exceedingly dull and dreary caper pic cum art-appreciation seminar — a museum-piece movie about museum people. Fronting an all-star cast and top-drawer craft contributions in every department, this expensive-looking Sony/Fox co-production should outpace the $75 million worldwide gross of Clooney’s previous turn in the director’s chair (2011’s “The Ides of March”), but doesn’t amount to more than a footnote in his remarkable filmography.
When Clooney started out as a director, it was clear he’d learned a great deal about technique from his many collaborations with Steven Soderbergh, and his first two features, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002) and “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), were compelling evidence that the pupil might be as good as the master. Though wildly divergent in tone, both those movies were inventive biopics set against the backdrop of live television production — a world Clooney grew up in — and “Confessions” in particular seemed informed stylistically by the fast pace and self-reflexivity of live TV. But “The Ides of March” and now “The Monuments Men” are likes movies made by someone else: dutiful, establishment prestige pictures with “big” ideas communicated in thuddingly literal fashion. In short, if Clooney started out as Soderbergh, somewhere along the way he seems to have turned into ’80s-era Norman Jewison.
In between “Good Night” and “Ides,” Clooney made “Leatherheads,” a stab at ’30s screwball comedy that was reliably a half-beat off from Howard Hawks’ rhythms. And with “The Monuments Men,” Clooney seems to be aiming for something faintly Hawksian again, casting himself in the role of Frank Stokes, the Fogg Museum art historian who conceives of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) program and ultimately finds himself running it. The time is the spring of 1944, a few weeks after Allied bombers destroyed a fifth-century abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy, mistakenly believing it to be a Nazi stronghold, and despite a presidential order stating that important historical and artistic sites were not to be bombed. The only solution, Stokes (who’s based on the real Fogg curator and conservationist George Stout) proposes, is to create an elite corps of art-world experts who’ll travel to the front lines and advise those in command, while also working to recover the thousands of artworks stolen by the Nazis from private Jewish collections and museums alike — many of them destined for Hitler’s planned Fuehrermuseum in his hometown of Linz.
So like a paintbrush-toting Nick Fury, Stokes sets about assembling his team: expert art restorer James Granger (Matt Damon); Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray); sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman); theater impresario Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban); a disgraced British museum head (Hugh Bonneville) in need of a second chance; and a former Ecole des Beaux-Arts painting instructor (Jean Dujardin) from gay Paris. Middle-aged and out of shape, they stick out like a Picasso in the Cloisters when they show up for basic training in England, but then, they’ve been recruited for their brains, not their brawn.
For all its talk about art being “the very foundation of modern society” and solemn sermonizing like “Who will make sure the statue of David is still standing, the Mona Lisa still smiling?” it’s one of the curiosities of “The Monuments Men” that so few pieces of art actually appear onscreen in the course of the movie’s two hours. For much of that time, our heroes travel hither and yon on the trail of two particular masterpieces: Michelangelo’s marble-sculpted Madonna of Bruges and Flemish masters Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s 12-panel altarpiece “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” both seized by the Germans during the war. But aside from those treasures, themselves glimpsed only fleetingly, the movie tends to talk about art in general rather than specific terms.
The MFAA men themselves are rendered similarly vague. Whereas Edsel’s book bristled with vivid individuals, many of them friends or foes from their civilian art-world lives, the characters Clooney and regular screenwriting partner Grant Heslov have made from them feel sketched-in at best, as if it their personalities had been traded away along with their real names. Indeed, just about everything Clooney and Heslov have done to make Edsel’s sprawling narrative more coherent and cinematic has the effect of simply making things bland. Largely gone is the lively battlefield bickering between Monuments and Army men over the relative value of art and human life, replaced by such hackneyed invented scenes as the one in which a Monuments Man bravely sacrifices himself in a failed effort to save the Madonna. (In reality, a couple of MFAA workers died in the combat zone, but none quite so romantically.) It’s like a men-on-a-mission movie tailor-made for audiences who found “Inglourious Basterds” too irreverent.
Clooney’s Stokes is like a tamer version of the acerbic Special Forces officer he played in another wartime treasure hunt, David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” — the kind of debonair, wizened man of the world Clooney can act in his sleep (which he sometimes seems to be doing here). Damon, meanwhile, is altogether too laid-back for a man who supposedly spends his days making infinitesimal touch-ups to decaying artistic masterworks. His poor command of French becomes one of the movie’s labored running jokes, but no one ever mentions Cate Blanchett’s tortured Gallic accent as Claire Simone, an assistant curator at Paris’ Jeu de Paume museum who knows more about the stolen art’s whereabouts than she initially lets on, fearing that the Americans may simply steal everything for themselves. (Blanchett’s character is based on Rose Valland, whose own memoir served as the basis for John Frankenheimer’s “The Train,” an equally fictionalized but far more exciting take on these events, and one of the great action movies of the ’60s.)
Faring generally better are Murray and Balaban, who foster a nicely understated comic chemistry and seem to have decided to make the most of their underwritten scenes. In one of the only moments of “The Monuments Men” that strikes a real chord, Murray receives a homemade recording of his grandchildren singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and Clooney holds on the actor’s wonderfully emotive face as Balaban plays the record for him over the barracks PA.
The real Monuments Men were men of great passion and senses of duty who risked their own lives for art, but the film Clooney and Heslov has made is an oddly bloodless and conventional tribute, dutifully winding its way toward an obvious destination with the expected parade of historical signposts: lots of onscreen titles to signal the passage of time; occasional glimpses of Hitler looming over a scale model of the Fuehrermuseum; the issuance of the 1945 “Nero Decree” stating that if Hitler dies or Germany falls, all the stolen art will be destroyed. Through it all, the movie never really springs to life, and that’s a particular disappointment coming from Clooney, who’s smart and tasteful and one of the only people in today’s Hollywood who could get a project like “The Monuments Men” off the ground in the first place. In the end, the art is recovered, but the movie itself remains entombed.
The extensive special-effects work that reportedly held up the pic’s release from Christmas of last year is, in the end, seamless to behold. Composer Alexandre Desplat, who contributes one of his most conventional scores — a John Williams-esque Americana fanfare — also appears in a small role as one of Damon’s contacts in the French resistance. Heslov cameos as an Army surgeon, while Clooney’s father, Nick, appears as an aged Stokes in a 1970s epilogue.