'Monuments Men': Fighting art majors slogging through wartime Europe
The Dirty Dozen Curators? The Art Critics of Navarone?
With its jaunty hup-two-three-four score, its piggish Nazis, and its gallant gang of recruits - led by George Clooney, in epaulets and Clark Gable mustache - The Monuments Men is a throwback to Hollywood's war movies of yore.
Alas, it's a throwback that's thrown its back out - limping along, trailed by battalions of stereotypes and ammo rounds of cliche.
Based on the true story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, whose squad of museum directors, artists, and historians were given Army uniforms and tasked with recovering masterpieces seized by the Nazis, The Monuments Men aims for a kind of retro swagger and high-culture camaraderie, but misses by a wide mark.
Clooney, who also directs (leadenly), is George L. Stout, the art conservator seen pitching FDR on the need to go to Europe, post D-Day, to save the Rembrandts, Rodins, Renoirs and Cezannes, the religious friezes and gems from private collections (such as the Rothschilds'), that had fallen into German hands. Cut to an architectural model of the Führer Museum, where Hitler - an art student before he dreamed up the Third Reich - planned to hang his bounty.
And the art he didn't approve of, such as that Picasso fellow? Burn, baby, burn. (Read The Rape of Europa, or see the documentary of the same name, to get a fuller grasp of the Nazis' massive appropriation campaign, and the Allies' efforts to track, protect, and return works to their rightful owners.)
The Monuments Men begins with Stout assembling his team: There's Matt Damon, Clooney's Ocean's Trilogy confrère, who plays James Rorimer, a Metropolitan Museum of Art curator; there's Bill Murray as a Chicago architect, who gets a kick from picking on his diminutive buddy, an art scholar and theater impresario played by Bob Balaban. John Goodman is a sculptor, paired with Jean Dujardin, star of The Artist, who, surprisingly, is cast as a Frenchman. Hugh Bonneville is the token Brit, an officer and a gentleman (and a Downton Abbey star in his spare time) who has a reputation for boozing but who knows a Michelangelo when he sees one.
So off they go, landing on a Normandy beach in July 1944 - all cleaned up after the Saving Private Ryan carnage of a month before. Damon's Rorimer arrives separately, stealing himself into Deauville, where he meets with Resistance fighters who mock his French and help him get to Paris. There he meets Claire Simon (Cate Blanchett), once the curator of the storied Jeu de Paume museum. She mocks his French, too. (It's a running joke.)
Mademoiselle Simon is now the secretary to the SS officer in charge of Hitler's art redistribution plan. Her ledger will come in handy, as will the necktie she keeps in her apartment, just in case some handsome American comes over for dinner lacking the proper attire.
So off the men go, looking for the van Eycks' Ghent altarpiece and other treasures, before the Nazis, in retreat, destroy them. Or before the Red Army rolls in from the East. Stalin has commissioned his own "trophy brigade" to bring home some loot, and at a certain point toward The Monuments Men's not-so-exciting climax, the cast might as well start chanting, "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming."
But that's another movie, about another war - the Cold War. At least its farce was intentional.
The Monuments Men ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by George Clooney. With Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, and George Clooney. Distributed by Columbia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters