By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
The Monuments Men has all the makings of a rousing World War II caper and no intention of having that much fun. Expectations to the contrary are built into the casting; Bill Murray and John Goodman wouldn't enlist unless it's funny, and with George Clooney and Matt Damon toplining, this could be Ocean's 14 in fatigues.
Instead, The Monuments Men barely cracks or invites a smile. Not that there's anything wrong with that because the story's high-minded elements — essentially the preservation of civilization — are interesting enough. The movie is directed and co-written by Clooney, his fifth and least inventive turn behind the camera. Mostly it's hamstrung by an abundance of reverence and dialogue sounding like an art studies syllabus when it isn't rehashing war movie tropes.
Clooney also stars as Frank Stokes, a fictionalized art historian introduced in 1944 with a plea for F.D.R. to approve an usual mission. Under Hitler's orders the great painted and sculpted masterpieces of Europe have been confiscated, thousands of works representing the best of humanity, to stock a museum he'll build in his own honor. Frank proposes sending in a team of art experts to locate and when possible return these works to rightful owners, before Nazis destroy them out of defeated spite, or they become collateral damage of an Allied invasion.
Roosevelt okays the plan, after the first of Frank's several waxings on why this mission is so esoterically important. Even the standard montage of rounding up the crew short-changes the amusement such reunions can provide, especially with these actors. Everything is played too straight, when a little more irreverence would go a long way.
These are certainly actors who are capable of pulling it off. As a fellow art expert, Damon plays well off Clooney's seriousness, getting the movie's closest thing to a running gag with his subtitled broken French. Why he's sent to Paris without the native art dealer (Jean Dujardin) is puzzling. Instead Dujardin is paired with a sculptor (John Goodman), while Murray's architect is oddly coupled with Bob Balaban's art historian. Hugh Bonneville adds a stiff upper lip and a limp backstory. Every war movie needs a martyr for whom completing the mission is dedicated, or two in this case, for good cliched measure.
There's also Cate Blanchett pushing the "zees" and "zose" of acting school's French Accent 101, as a resistance spy withholding vital information from Damon's character and an unnecessarily distracting crush on him.
Structurally, The Monuments Men is uneven and repetitive, hopscotching across a continent without much variation in what happens at the next destination. Tension is scarce behind these enemy lines, weeks after D-Day with Nazis on the run. Murray and Balaban's armed standoff with a lone German soldier goes nowhere dramatically, and a fatal ambush plays too pat for tears or fears. Yet Clooney still makes valid and valuable points about art reflecting the human condition and heritage. But each time The Monuments Men does something right, Clooney confirms a documentary would do it better.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.