The Monuments Men George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett. Directed by George Clooney. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
After five features, George Clooney hasn’t done much to establish an identity as a director, especially considering how distinctive he is as an actor. The Monuments Men continues the nondescript trend, with Clooney directing, co-producing, co-writing and starring in a rather lifeless account of the squadron of art experts whose job was to track down precious works of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II. Clooney has taken on true stories before (Chuck Barris in his debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck), and he’s worked in a similar time period with his mediocre 2008 screwball comedy Leatherheads. But Monuments doesn’t have the stylistic daring of Confessions or Good Night, and its lighter moments don’t have even the meager zing of Leatherheads.
One thing Clooney has done well is assemble an impressive cast, led by himself as art history scholar Frank Stokes, who convinces the U.S. government to send in a team of experts to find and preserve Europe’s greatest artwork. Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, The Artist’s Jean Dujardin and Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville play the other members of the team, along with Cate Blanchett as a French museum curator who is at first suspicious and then helpful. After Clooney, Damon ends up with the biggest part, but even his character is pretty thinly sketched, and his co-stars barely get one personality trait each.
The story, based loosely on the book by Robert M. Edsel, is a disjointed series of incidents featuring the various team members in different configurations. Although the men are dropped into the middle of a war, there’s little urgency to the movie, even when lives are in imminent danger. Clooney alternates limp humor with corny speeches about the value of art and the nobility of the human spirit, and his strong cast can’t quite make it all stick. The movie finally generates a bit of excitement in the final act, with Stokes and his team racing to uncover caches of artwork before the Germans can burn them or the Russians can abscond with them. But it’s too little, too late for a movie that lets its prestige-picture trappings overwhelm the possibilities of a fascinating historical narrative. Instead of finding his voice as a filmmaker, Clooney ends up turning a unique story into something mediocre and generic.