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‘The Monuments Men’ Review: George Clooney’s Retro WWII Adventure Could Use Old-Fashioned Rewrite

An all-star cast nails the period flavor, but the storytelling is all over the place as this true story about rescuing art from the Nazis goes from breezy to lumbering

One of many fumbles made by U.S. forces during the invasion of Iraq was allowing art treasures to be looted from Baghdad’s art museums while soldiers were ordered to guard the Oil Ministry.

Matt Damon (left) and George Clooney in Columbia Pictures' THE MONUMENTS MEN.Our government wasn’t always so lax when it came to preserving cultural artifacts, as George Clooney‘s “The Monuments Men” goes out of its way to remind us. In the waning days of World War II, as Nazi dreams of glory were fading, a squadron of U.S. art historians tracked down and saved countless paintings and sculptures (to say nothing of church bells and copies of the Torah) from Hitler’s “Nero strategy,” wherein the retreating German troops would scorch as much earth (figuratively and literally) as they could.

The notion of architects, sculptors and academics sent to basic training and unleashed upon the theater of war promises to deliver both comedy and action, but Clooney (who directed and co-adapted Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter’s non-fiction book with Grant Heslov) never strikes the storytelling balance that the material deserves. At times, the film drags, while at others, it rushes through essential character and story elements.

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Clooney (sporting a Ronald Colman haircut and mustache) stars as Frank Stokes, who convinces FDR that preserving priceless art treasures from the Nazis is important enough to merit effort on the part of the Allies. At first, Stokes warns of the “Fuhrer Museum” in which Hitler plans to show off the spoils of his war; later, it becomes clear that whatever the Nazis can’t keep, they’ll destroy, even if it means the elimination of one-of-a-kind pieces from Michelangelo and other legends. (Pieces by contemporary artists like Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst were immediately torched by the Reich as decadent creations.)

Stokes assembles a ragtag bunch, including Matt Damon as an art restorer, Bob Balaban as a historian, Bill Murray as an architect, John Goodman as a sculptor, Cate Blanchett as a French “collaborator” who’s been keeping her eye on the masterpieces, Jean Dujardin as a man who looks good in a beret and Hugh Bonneville as a disgraced alcoholic seeking one last shot at redemption. I’d mention the character names, but we don’t ever really get to know these men, which is one of the movie’s biggest problems.

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“The Monuments Men” rushes through the preliminary exposition, and dispenses with their training in one quick montage, so by the time the squad breaks up into pairs and disperses throughout the continent, we don’t know them well enough to be amused by their interactions. (There’s a running gag about how bad Damon’s French is, but it goes from amusing to irritating after excessive repetition.)

It might have benefited Clooney and Heslov to spend a little more time on the set-up and less on the saving-the-art scenes, which grow a bit logy and repetitive. Pacing aside, however, Clooney definitely gets the old-school vibe down, from the zippy repartee to Alexandre Desplat’s vintage-sounding score, equal parts gung-ho and whoop-dee-doo.

In a way, it’s too bad that Clooney’s debut directorial effort, the genuinely weird “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” wasn’t a hit, because that film’s lack of success seems to have driven him to play it much safer behind the camera. The stodginess of “Good Night, and Good Luck.” worked because its stiffness matched the early TV that was its subject, but with “Leatherheads,” “The Ides of March” and now “Monuments Men,” you can feel Clooney’s timidity as a filmmaker.

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There’s not a single visual jolt or surprise to be found here — not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but Clooney’s visual straightforwardness only underscores the script’s weaknesses.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a World War II picture that’s closer to Howard Hawks than to Quentin Tarantino, but those classics, at their best, really knew how to tell a story. Clooney has a great yarn here, but his spinning gets tangled.