** (out of four)
Boy, there's nothing as thrilling as searchers who arrive at their target and say, "Yep, there it is."
That's all the excitement found in the dull "The Monuments Men," which suggests its interesting true story makes better fodder for cocktail party discussion than a movie. Director/co-writer George Clooney stars as Frank Stokes, who during WWII gathers a group of men (including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and, as an architect plucked from Chicago, Bill Murray) to locate and recover priceless art that the Nazis have stolen and hidden. Obviously, it's difficult to avoid thinking of "Ocean's Eleven" as Clooney puts together his sneaky crew, even if this time his guys are gambling on a much higher level.
This fact-based movie could have been unrealistic and heart-pounding or authentic and dry. Take a guess which path Clooney chose. As Stokes talks about the importance of protecting humanity's achievements, the filmmaker succeeds with the "What?" and the "Why?" of "The Monuments Men" but shrugs off the "How?" Two hours pass with not enough of consequence. It's funny that Granger (Damon) speaks lousy French (one of his statements translates to, "It is noble when work in dirt"), and "The Monuments Men" has a few nice scenes of the guys banding together and proving they're soldiers, not just preservationists getting in the way of reluctant commanders.
But the pacing and comic timing feel slack, with Clooney continuing a disappointing slide from a director in firm control ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Good Night, and Good Luck,") to one whose stories don't really pop ("Leatherheads," "The Ides of March"). There's little that the cast, which also includes Cate Blanchett as a woman from whom Granger tries to get information, can do to enliven the material -- unlike last week's "That Awkward Moment," which became a lot better thanks to its stars.
"The Monuments Men" does achieve something rare in that you may turn to a history book for more. Or possibly Wikipedia. Or maybe you'll just watch the comparable and more memorable "Simpsons" episode about the Flying Hellfish and call it a day.
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