Originally intended for Academy Awards consideration, this earnest World War II docudrama-like escapade falls far short of Oscar-caliber.
Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham on"Downton Abbey") delivers one of the most memorable performances as an alcoholic British art historian, seeking noble redemption as part of the small, multi-national squad headed by Fogg Museum curator/conservationist Frank Stokes (George Clooney), who is determined to preserve Europe's greatest works of art from acquisition and/or destruction in 1944 by the retreating Nazis.
"If you destroy an entire generation of people's culture, it's as if they never existed," Stokes explains to skeptical President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Working within the newly formed Monuments Fine Arts and Archives program, Stokes' team also includes an art restorer (Matt Damon), architect (Bill Murray), sculptor (John Goodman) and connoisseur (Bob Balaban).
They're charged with advising front-line commanders and recovering masterpieces looted from museums and private Jewish collections, treasures like Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges and Flemish masters Hubert and Jan van Eyck's 12-panel altarpiece "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb " -- superbly photographed by Phedon Papamichael.
They're aided by a Paris' Jeu du Paume Museum assistant curator/collaborator (Cate Blanchett), Ecole des Beaux-Arts painting instructor (Jean Dujardin) and German-Jewish teenage driver/translator (Dimitri Leonidas).
Episodically adapted from Robert M. Edsel's detailed, true-life account, it's sketchily scripted with too little structure and too many subplots by Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov and directed by Clooney.
The diverse characters should be fascinating, but
they aren't because their individual roles are not properly fleshed out. And Edsel's rivet-ing recounting of their battlefield bickering with Army
brass has been unduly truncated.
Trivia: Blanchett's character is based on French Resistance leader Rose Valland, whose memoir inspired John Frankenheimer's "The Train."
Clooney's father, Nick, appears as elderly Stokes in a 1970s epilogue. And composer Alexandre Desplat does a Resistance worker cameo.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Monuments Men" is a tonally shifting, sermonizing 7 -- given unexpected timeliness by the recent discovery in Germany of yet another hidden art collection.