Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's 11" meets David Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai" in George Clooney's "The Monuments Men." The combination isn't as intriguing as it sounds. At times, this fact-based film feels like a breezy heist flick, while at others it's a somber tribute to the sacrifices of war. The two tones don't harmonize, and they never ring true.
Directed and co-written by Clooney (with longtime collaborator Grant Heslov) from a nonfiction book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, "The Monuments Men" is the story of several unlikely soldiers -- all from the genteel art world and well past draft age -- who venture to the front lines of World War II to find art stolen by the Nazis. To the tune of Alexandre Desplat's reworked "Colonel Bogey March" (made popular by Lean's film), dashing art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) assembles his team.
They are Metropolitan Museum curator James Granger (Matt Damon); architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray); sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman); Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and Preston Savitz (an enjoyably dry Bob Balaban), both art experts; and French dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin, of "The Artist"). Add to this excellent cast Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone, a Parisienne hiding information on hundreds of missing masterpieces.
There are moments of light humor (mostly from odd couple Murray and Balaban) and of poignancy as the men risk their lives for treasures such as Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna. But this war-slash-heist film offers precious little excitement, barely any suspense and zero romance. "The Monuments Men" would seem free to take plenty of dramatic license, since none of its characters are real (a few are inspired by historical figures), yet the script never thinks beyond the plausible. The action scenes feel modest, the climactic moments small-scale. The film also lacks a villain (aside from a briefly glimpsed Hitler), which leaves our heroes fighting a somewhat abstract battle.
"The Monuments Men" occasionally makes an eloquent case for the value -- beyond dollars, that is -- of great art. Somehow, though, it lacks the spark that could have made it live and breathe.
PLOT During World War II, several art experts join the Army to track down masterpieces stolen by the Nazis. Based on a true story.
RATING PG-13 (language, mild violence)
CAST George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett
BOTTOM LINE Rich with historical details, low on excitement and romance. Still, the attractive cast and European backdrops make for a pleasant journey.
CLOONEY'S BEHIND THE CAMERA, BY GEORGE
George Clooney is equally at home working behind the camera as well as in front of it. Besides "The Monuments Men," opening today, he's helmed four other movies ranging from screwball comedy to political drama.
CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (2002) -- Clooney's directorial debut was this acclaimed story of game-show producer Chuck Barris' alleged double life as a CIA agent. Clooney knew well how to re-create those game-show sequences -- he often visited the sets of the game shows his dad, Nick Clooney, directed and hosted in the '70s.
GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (2005) -- Journalist Edward R. Murrow's stand against Communist-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy earned Clooney Oscar nominations for his moody black-and-white direction and the screenplay.
LEATHERHEADS (2008) -- Clooney directed and starred as a football hero in the Roaring '20s trying to turn his team from zeros to heroes. He watched lots of classic screwball comedies as research for this pigskin parade, but it fumbled at the box office.
THE IDES OF MARCH (2011) -- Ryan Gosling played a young idealist who learns about dirty politics while working on a presidential hopeful's campaign in this Clooney drama. Guess who played the charismatic candidate.
-- Daniel Bubbeo