‘The Monuments Men’ could have been so much more: 1½ stars

02/06/2014 1:00 PM

02/06/2014 7:26 PM

Strange how a film about the preservation of art can prove so inartistic.

“The Monuments Men,” George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, does little with its fascinating “based on a true story” pedigree. What could have emerged as a highbrow spin on “The Dirty Dozen” is instead turned into a flat, disjointed snoozer.

During World War II, art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) is concerned that many of history’s greatest treasures are becoming casualties of Nazi occupation. Not only is the enemy stealing significant works for a proposed Führer Museum in Hitler’s Austrian hometown, but Allied bombing is further obliterating priceless items.

Stokes advocates sending a team of fellow over-the-hill scholars (interchangeably played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin and John Goodman) to the front lines to “find what’s missing and protect what’s left.”

As the war winds down, the stakes are further raised when the Nazis employ a slash-and-burn policy to artwork while retreating to Berlin.

Stokes believes that’s an even greater crime against a culture because by destroying their achievements, “it’s like they never existed.”

Great premise, right?

It certainly worked wonders for the detailed, character-driven book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. In this loose adaptation, Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov (“The Ides of March”) can’t capitalize on the setup, continually allowing ripe dramatic opportunities to evaporate. Murray and Balaban, for example, play professional rivals who at one point stumble into a guns-drawn stalemate with a jittery German soldier. It gets resolved off-screen.

Worse, the movie’s one clever plot twist finds the same pair consulting a German civilian who the audience already knows is a Nazi officer. Quentin Tarantino could have turned the encounter into a nail-biting 10-minute grilling — a la “Inglourious Basterds” — as the art experts attempt to trip up the guilty culprit. Clooney elects to settle it in a few minutes with a one-liner.

Again and again, the movie can’t take advantage of its potential. Murray is notoriously stingy about the projects he chooses, yet here the iconic comedian is relegated to sitcom-level interplay with the mousy Balaban. The chameleonic abilities of Cate Blanchett as a prim French museum employee helping la Résistance add some intrigue, only to flounder when she is downgraded to a failed love interest for Damon’s bland historian.

The closest the picture gets to a legitimate emotional moment is when Murray’s architect is serenaded with a holiday song recorded by his family. Yet we never meet these people in the first place. Nor do we have a sense of how much time has passed. Has he been gone from them for weeks or months? Hard to tell with this patchy film, which has the edited quality of a rough cut.

Despite the A-list cast and respectable budget (reportedly in the $80 million range), the movie’s only resonance comes in glimpses. One stomach-turning cutaway shot finds German soldiers taking a flame thrower to piles of treasured artwork, rather than let the Allies recover them.

Doubtful that future generations will care if this same fate befalls the master print of “The Monuments Men.”

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