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REVIEW: 'The Monuments Men' ★★

Director/writer/star George Clooney had a great story to work with, but the result is no masterpiece

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

5:18 PM EST, February 4, 2014

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A genial disappointment about the preciousness of art amid the destructive horrors of war, "The Monuments Men" is scored to a military march by composer Alexandre Desplat. You hear what he was going for: jaunty heroics. The throwback sound of it suggests the director, co-writer and star George Clooney sat down with Desplat, gave him a smile and said: "Gimme some of that Elmer Bernstein 'Great Escape' magic, Al."

It almost works. The whole film, with its unfashionable techniques (slow fades and dissolves by the dozen) and uber-relaxed, old-school vibe, almost works. Yet Clooney's attempt to honor unsung real-life heroes while recapturing the ensemble pleasures of some well-remembered Hollywood war pictures, notably "The Great Escape" and "The Guns of Navarone," comes off as a modestly accomplished forgery at best.

You keep waiting for it to kick into gear, for the odd-couple banter between Bill Murray and Bob Balaban to start clicking. The actors, including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujuardin, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett as a Parisian curator based on Rose Valland, are present and ready for duty. It's "Ocean's Eight," this time with serious historical import. The script by Clooney and Grant Heslov offers the actors an outline and some functional scenes, mostly two-handers.

But at some point during filming in Germany and England, Clooney must've realized behind the camera that his own script needed another rewrite or two to make dramatic and comic sense of its mission. "All hell's broken loose here," his character says at one point, traveling through another frontline scene of mass destruction. You see it, you don't feel it, and while it'd be crazy to expect a movie such as "The Monuments Men" to dive into wartime miseries, its calculated breeziness veers perilously close to a State Department tour.

It's a wonderful subject, which makes the engagement level all the more frustrating. The curators, architects, art historians and artists of the FDR-sanctioned Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives crew scrambled around Europe during the war, saving what they could, finding Nazi-looted and culturally priceless Rembrandts and Picassos and frescoes, many of them crated deep within Hitler's salt mines.

Largely fictionalized, the film compresses events and cooks up dramatic death scenes, even as it asks the audience to chuckle through a scene of Damon's character trapped atop an unexploded land mine. That scene is followed, abruptly, by the discovery of barrels of gold teeth extracted from Jewish concentration camp prisoners. The change-up is jarring, intentionally. The effect feels misjudged.

Clooney plays a Harvard art historian based on George Stout, a World War I veteran returning to the fields and villages of battle with a different objective this time. He's the ringleader, and once he enlists James Granger (Damon, playing a character loosely inspired by James Rorimer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), it's a matter of lining up the best character men for the job. Murray's introduced atop a Chicago skyscraper, with the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower behind him. He plays an architect borrowing a bit of real-life architect Robert Posey's story. One of the peculiarities of "The Monuments Men" is its generic texture; the men's specific skills and interests are largely washed over.

Clooney's work as a director includes "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "The Ides of March," good films all. He also directed the period football comedy "Leatherheads," proving his fallibility. "The Monuments Men" deals in an entirely different genre, but there's a similar tonal indecision at work here. Now and then the film goes for the jugular, emotionally speaking, as when Murray's architect tears up listening to his family's homemade recording of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." That scene should kill, yet somehow it doesn't. It's not Murray's fault: The scene needed a simpler, straighter attack, not all the fancy intercutting with field hospital trauma footage. Realism schmealism: This is a Hollywood movie. But that sort of scene takes you out of the movie you're trying to invest in.

The actors are quite marvelous, and a brief sequence featuring "Downton Abbey's" Bonneville as dissolute art lover out for redemption, in which he asks a superior officer for permission to go into Bruges and save a Madonna, provides exactly what the rest of the movie lacks — namely, some snap. Clooney acts with more charm than urgency in "The Monuments Men." He's a far better actor than many realize; he makes everything look easy. But this time he really does just sort of George-Clooney his way through. See John Frankenheimer's "The Train" again, the one with Burt Lancaster, for a wholly different and genuinely exciting perspective on the same historical outrage.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"The Monuments Men" - 2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some images of war violence and historical smoking)

Running time: 1:50

Opens: Friday