“The Monuments Men” is the “Last Vegas” of World War II movies. A roughly true while fictionally embellished account of the efforts of American arts scholars — drafted into the Army — to preserve the artistic patrimony of Europe from the scourge of combat and theft by the Germans, it is a cute but clunky ensemble piece that director George Clooney rarely bestows with the gravitas and jauntiness this material demanded.
They changed the names — well, of almost everyone — from the historic “Monuments Men,” whose exploits were recounted in the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. Clooney and co-adaptor Grant Heslov had to sex it up a bit, give the tale more thriller elements. But it still makes for a genial combat picture starring a bunch of guys “too old for this,” as indeed were many of the actual curators, artists and scholar-heroes who did the work.
Clooney plays the guy tasked with assembling a team of men of experience, all of them shoved into ill-fitting uniforms, given rudimentary basic training and thrust into the combat zones of Europe, battling murderously thieving Germans, suspicious occupied French and their own “No painting is worth a GI’s life” field commanders.
“This is our history,” Stokes (Clooney) pep-talks his troops. “It’s not to be stolen or destroyed. It’s to be held up and admired.”
But that’s what the Nazi leadership was doing — swiping the famed Ghent Altarpiece, Michelangelo’s “Madonna of Bruges” and pretty much anything that wasn’t nailed down in Paris as the Allies swept eastward after D-Day.
John Goodman plays a garrulous sculptor; Matt Damon an art restorer and museum director with a misplaced confidence in his command of French. Bob Balaban and Bill Murray are mismatched curator and architect with enough training to track the thievery. And Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”) and Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”) are the token Frenchman and Brit on the team.