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Review: 'Monuments Men' talks big but lacks artful direction

Earnest and well-intentioned but ultimately inert, "The Monuments Men" talks a better game than it can deliver. Inspired by true tales of World War II derring-do, it can't decide what kind of a film it wants to be and so ends up failing across a fairly wide spectrum.

This is something of a surprise, and not just because the film is directed and co-written by George Clooney, who is also top dog in a high-powered cast that includes Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett.

Rather, the film's flat-lining is unexpected because the underlying narrative of a small band of American soldiers tasked with protecting the great artworks of Europe from the depredations of German, Russian and even U.S. troops not only sounds like it would make a hell of a film, in one sense, it already has.

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"The Rape of Europa," a 2006 documentary based on Lynn H. Nicholas' National Book Critics Circle award-winning work, covers some of the same territory as "Monuments Men" in such an involving fashion that when I wrote about it, I insisted its stories were "fascinating enough to inspire movies of their own." Be careful what you wish for.

Clooney and his frequent writing partner Grant Heslov were inspired not by my review (thank God) but by the notion of doing a movie in the vein of the World War II dramas of the 1960s and '70s, films like "The Guns of Navarone," "The Great Escape" and "The Dirty Dozen."

There is nothing wrong with that idea, but the execution is so haphazard and erratic that it reminds us that Clooney's directing credits include the clumsy "Leatherheads" as well as the dazzling "Good Night, and Good Luck."

The problem here, as noted, is that "Monuments Men's" eyes are bigger than its stomach. In attempting to mix ersatz "Ocean's Eleven" buddy humor with life-threatening World War II action while doing justice to the true story that underlies it all, the film never finds a consistent tone and ends up lacking in all areas.

It's the real stuff the film gets to first, as we see Belgian priests clandestinely carting off Jan van Eyck's irreplaceable Ghent Altarpiece to keep it away from art-hungry German troops engaged in industrial-strength looting of occupied countries.

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We also go to Paris, where Nazis under the direction of no less a personage than Hermann Goering are engaged in systematic plundering of art from Jewish collectors, much to the disgust of Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who seems like a lowly curator but is actually playing a more dangerous game.

All this art thievery so upsets top drawer art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) that he takes a meeting with Franklin D. Roosevelt. By insisting that "art is the very foundation of modern society," Stokes persuades the president to start what became known as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program. These art-savvy operatives, old and out of shape though some of them are, get inducted into the Army and are charged with going to the European front and "protecting what's left, finding what's missing."

Though this group of folks eventually numbered 300 to 400 strong, "Monuments Men" engages in the polite fiction that eight men did it all, and, in classic "Seven Samurai" fashion, the film takes us around as Clooney recruits them all, from architect Richard Campbell (Murray) to sculptor Walter Garfield (Goodman) and theatrical impresario Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban).

The film's press notes are careful to indicate that these characters are based on real people, but the problem with them is that as written they don't seem real at all, even when broken into small groups and sent out on their own adventures. (Matt Damon's James Granger is detailed to Paris to attempt to gain a cranky Claire Simone's trust and cooperation.)

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Making matters worse, "Monuments Men's" running time is padded with generic episodes that feel like they're left over from other World War II movies even if they're not. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it does not lead to good films.

Also not helping is the script's creaky bonhomie between a group of individuals who are forever cracking wise. This faux-jaunty dialogue is simply not entertaining, and it makes the serious jeopardy these men are occasionally in that much more unconvincing.

The only actor who escapes unscathed is Blanchett, whose Claire Simon is based on Rose Valland, who's been described as one of the most decorated women in French history. Not burdened with glib dialogue, Blanchett brings the kind of integrity to her performance that is lacking elsewhere.

The best parts of "Monuments Men" are the recapitulation of the genuine art-rescuing accomplishments of its protagonists. The real-life monuments men recovered some 5 million pieces of art, and if this disappointing film calls any kind of attention to that, it will have done at least that much good in the world.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'The Monuments Men'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Playing: In general release.

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