‘Monuments Men’ a paint-by-numbers affair

Wearing multiple hats and military garb, George Clooney dramatizes the exploits of a brigade tasked with rescuing stolen art treasures from Nazi hands in “The Monuments Men,” his ambitious celebration of these unlikely warriors and of that thing called art.

It's congenial but bland and formulaic, and these subjects deserve better.

Although it has Clooney's amiable tone and interest in morality, the film is the director's most conventional offering, particularly compared to the quietly powerful “Good Night and Good Luck” and the shallower but winning “The Ides of March.”

A Steven Soderbergh-style caper flick comes together with an old-fashioned Hollywood war picture, with lots of dramatic license, in this adaptation by Clooney and Grant Heslov from the nonfiction book by Robert M. Edsel.

Clooney plays Frank Stokes, a 1940s New York art conservationist, who is introduced when addressing a crowd, which includes FDR, about the Nazi theft of priceless art pieces. For the welfare of human history, these masterworks must be reclaimed, Stokes convinces the president (and the audience).

Stokes assembles a squad of art experts (Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin) and, after some comically presented basic training, the out-of-shape men head for occupied Europe.

Their mission: Locate and repossess art the Nazis stole and return it to its owners. Challenges abound. The men must dodge Nazi bullets and convince Allied generals to stop bombing German sites where art might exist.

They must win the trust of Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a French curator and Resistance member who may possess crucial information. A Nazi decree stating that the art must be destroyed in the event of Hitler's death or Germany's surrender adds a race-against-time element.

Clooney includes stellar bits. Odd-couple dynamics shared by Murray's and Balaban's characters are enjoyable. A gracefully crazy encounter between Dujardin and a horse also merits mention. But such moments amount to isolated, inspired brushstrokes in a picture too tame and familiar to transcend the middling mark.

As a suspenser, it pales next to John Frankenheimer's similarly themed “The Train.” As a lesson about the Nazi destruction of art, it's a smidgen of the book-based documentary “The Rape of Europa.”

Clooney gives his able cast little opportunity to display anything insightful or interesting about these people who would die to save a work of art. Scenes of Frank citing the need to keep the “Mona Lisa smiling” don't cut it.

As for the art itself, the screenplay limits it largely to Michelangelo's “Madonna of Bruges” and Van Eyck's “Ghent Altarpiece.” Presented as the most-treasured items among the stolen art, the works come across as mere devices inserted to figure into the action climax.

An expressive Alexandre Desplat score reflects the high ambitions of this paint-by-numbers affair.

REVIEW

The Monuments Men

Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett

Written by George Clooney, Grant Heslov

Directed by George Clooney

Rated PG-13

Running time 1 hour, 58 minutes

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