By Roger Moore
“The Monuments Men” is the “Last Vegas” of World War II movies. A roughly true/fictionally embellished account of the efforts of American arts scholars — drafted into the Army — to preserve the artistic patrimony of Europe from the scourge of combat and theft by the Germans, it is a cute but clunky ensemble piece that director George Clooney rarely bestows with the gravitas and jauntiness this material demanded.
They changed most of the names from the historic “Monuments Men,” whose exploits were recounted in the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. Clooney and co-adaptor Grant Heslov had to sex it up a bit, give the tale more thriller elements. But it still makes for a genial combat picture starring a bunch of guys “too old for this,” as indeed were many of the actual curators, artists and scholar-heroes who did the work.
Clooney plays the guy tasked with assembling a team of men of experience, all of them shoved into ill-fitting uniforms, given rudimentary basic training and thrust into the combat zones of Europe, battling murderously thieving Germans, suspicious occupied French and even U.S. field commanders, whose concern is for GIs not paintings.
Their mission is to save priceless works swiped by the Nazi leadership as the Allies swept eastward after D-Day.
John Goodman plays a garrulous sculptor, Matt Damon an art restorer and museum director with a misplaced confidence in his command of French.
The story skips across locations — slowly — and shows us the history: Nazi Hermann Goering’s art “shopping” in the museums of Paris and the stoic efforts to track the thefts by heroic French curator Claire, played by Cate Blanchett.
It is difficult to justify the changes made to the real-life heroine of the French Resistance, Rose Valland, to create Blanchett’s character, a big reason this movie was removed from Oscar consideration. Another is that “The Monuments Men” just isn’t that good.
Corny moments abound, and occasionally the players hit their old-fashioned war-movie cliches so hard you wince.
Changing names and tarting up the characters doesn’t quite spoil the generally solid attention to detail and doesn’t ruin several genuinely poignant moments. Some of the banter sings, but much of it feels forced.
This could have been a lovely historical lark, a bunch of grizzled faux soldiers tracking art, outwitting Nazis and occasionally dealing with a blast of tragedy and “what this war is really about” reminders. Clooney, for the first time in his directing career (“Good Night, and Good Luck,” “The Ides of March”) never finds the sweet spot and never quite wrestles the script into a shape entertaining enough to be worth the liberties he and Heslov took with the facts.