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‘The Monuments Men’: Entertaining war adventure with a retro feel

‘THE MONUMENTS MEN’ ★★★

Frank Stokes George Clooney

James Granger Matt Damon

Richard Campbell Bill Murray

Walter Garfield John Goodman

Claire Simone Cate Blanchett

Sony Pictures presents a film directed by George Clooney and written by Clooney and Grant Heslov, based on the book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some images of war violence and historical smoking). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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Updated: March 8, 2014 6:09AM



It’s the “Nerdy Dozen.”

Well, half-dozen plus one to be exact, but George Clooney directs himself and his six main co-stars in “The Monuments Men” as if he had watched “The Dirty Dozen” on a continuous loop for a week before rolling the cameras on this engaging, shamelessly corny and entertaining World War II adventure inspired by true events.

Even though there’s some PG-13 violence and bloodshed, and a few chilling reminders of Hitler’s reign of terror and the soul-curdling goals of the Nazis, this is still one of the most old-fashioned and at times almost breezy WWII films in recent memory. This is the kind of movie where a man reacts to a character’s death by saying, “That’s a hell of a thing,” and his brother in arms says, “Yep, a hell of a thing,” and a wounded soldier told he can go home says, “If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll stick around.”

When it’s all over, you feel as if you could walk out of the theater, hear the sounds of Sinatra coming from a Buick Roadmaster, buy a copy of Life magazine and head to the local Woolworth’s to order an ice cream soda.

Co-writer/director/star Clooney tells the admittedly fascinating and mostly forgotten story of an unlikely band of middle-aged art curators given the seemingly impossible task of recovering thousands of pieces of stolen art from the Nazis. It’s presented as “the greatest treasure hunt of all time,” with Clooney embellishing some details while creating an “Oceans 11”-type caper with a heavy layering of unabashed sentimentality.

The adventure begins deep into the war, when Clooney’s Frank Stokes attempts to convince FDR to send a group of young art experts to Europe to retrieve paintings, murals, sculptures and other irreplaceable treasures from the Nazis and return them to their rightful owners, whether those owners be churches, museums or private collectors. (This is the kind of movie where we see only the back of the president’s head and the silhouette of his trademark cigarette/holder.)

When FDR points out all the young art scholars are already over there fighting, the task is left to Frank and a half-dozen of his personally recruited pals — who range in age from about 40 to bona fide grandpa status — to don uniforms, undergo something resembling basic training and get to work.

Playing characters inspired by real-life figures (with the names changed), we have Matt Damon as James Granger from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; John Goodman as sculptor Walter Garfield, who is stunned to learn those weren’t blanks flying over his head in basic training; Bill Murray as droll architect Richard Campbell, and the constantly fuming Bob Balaban as Richard’s comic foil, Preston Savitz. Hugh Bonneville from “Downton Abbey” joins the team as the Brit Donald Jeffries, an alcoholic hoping this mission will be his redemption; Jean Dujardin is the ever-optimistic French soldier Jean Claude Clermont, and Cate Blanchett is the mysterious Frenchwoman Claire Simone, who knows where some of the greatest treasures are buried but has been so battered by the war experience she doesn’t trust anyone.

Quite a cast there, and everyone has a scene or two to shine. There’s at least one too many scenes of the Monuments Men just getting lucky, and two too many scenes in which a character arrives on the scene and finds a manipulatively heart-tugging symbol waiting for him.

Clooney knows he’s facing an uphill struggle. He knows today’s moviegoer is going to learn the plot and think: Even the most precious artwork isn’t worth the lives of American soldiers. After a number of arguments about how civilization will never be the same if the admittedly invaluable Rembrandts, Picassos, church murals and religious sculptures are never recovered, and that the effort IS worth risking lives, Frank Stokes tells us that only after some of the Monuments Men were in battle did they feel worthy of wearing the uniform.

Which pretty much contradicts the arguments he’d been making all along.

Everyone in the cast is wonderful, though the great Cate Blanchett doesn’t seem fully committed to her French accent and seems almost embarrassed to be reciting some of her cheesier lines. This is a solid albeit slow-building film with few dull moments.

Clooney obviously has great respect for the real-life Monuments Men, and by all accounts they deserve that respect. The film isn’t without its moments of sorrow or loss, but for every scene with a hint of edge, there are at least two that go for near-schmaltzy payoffs.

Even the closing credits theme and visuals are awfully reminiscent of the type of slightly sugarcoated war film that had all but disappeared by the time the 1970s rolled around.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper



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