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posted: 2/6/2014 6:00 AM

Scholars chase Nazi art booty in Clooney's 'Monuments Men'

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  • Dimitri Leonidas, left, John Goodman, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bob Balaban look for stolen art in George Clooney's fact-based drama "The Monuments Men."

      Dimitri Leonidas, left, John Goodman, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bob Balaban look for stolen art in George Clooney's fact-based drama "The Monuments Men."

  • Chicago guys Bill Murray and Bob Balaban star as World War II art experts in "The Monuments Men."

      Chicago guys Bill Murray and Bob Balaban star as World War II art experts in "The Monuments Men."

  • Video: "The Monuments Men" trailer

 
 

The real star of George Clooney's syrupy World War II drama "The Monuments Men" turns out to be Alexandre Desplat's score, mood-setting music constantly affirming the emotions that its generic characters struggle to muster.

Even before our heroes -- aging art scholars charged with saving Europe's greatest art treasures from the Nazis -- begin their mission, Desplat's sentimental score pumps the movie full of unearned worshipful patriotism, complete with a forlorn bugle.

Desplat's overt music also suggests the 1963 World War II adventure "The Great Escape," but the comparison doesn't favor "The Monuments Men," an agreeable but oddly uninspired fifth movie from this gifted director.

Clooney plays art historian Lt. Frank Stokes, a fictional character based on Harvard University art conservationist George Stout. Stokes begs the president to dispatch experts to Europe to rescue thousands of paintings and sculptures confiscated by the Nazis.

Many pieces have been hidden in Germany to eventually be exhibited at the Führer's proposed art museum. Other pieces wind up in the hands of Nazi officers.

Stokes also realizes that the Nazis will destroy these masterpieces rather than let them be taken by the Allies.

So, Stokes assembles a crack team of wisecracking Allied experts to find, verify and save centuries of art: Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Chicago's own Bill Murray), theater impresario/art historian Preston Savitz (Chicago's own Bob Balaban), stuffy art authority James Granger (Matt Damon), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jewish French art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), British art aficionado Donald Jeffries ("Downton Abbey" star Hugh Bonneville) and Jewish soldier Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidis), who acts as an interpreter.

After humorous basic training for the AARP platoon, the guys set out to find literal buried treasures in several major cities. But where?

"X" marks the spot where Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) sits in Paris' Jeu de Paume gallery, now under the command of the Nazis.

Claire has kept a secret record of where the Nazis have sent Europe's artwork. But she refuses to give information to the Allies, for fear they'll be just like the advancing Russian troops, out to grab the loot for themselves.

It falls to Granger to persuade Claire that the Allies will return the artwork to its rightful owners. She might help, if the very married man considers a night with her in the City of Lights. "After all," she says, "it is war. And it is Paris."

(Granger is based on New York Metropolitan Museum of Art director James Rorimer, whose relationship with Jeu de Paume employee Rose Valland inspired this tepid semi-romantic subplot.)

"The Monuments Men" heads into the third act with the Allies racing to save the art before the Russians grab it, or worse, the Nazis destroy it.

Strangely, Clooney's movie lacks the tightening tension the story intends to achieve.

The aforementioned romance barely registers. The deaths of two team members occur with surprisingly limited sadness.

Chicago boys Murray and Balaban have great fun mixing it up as grumpy old rivals. Yet, we don't see many seeds of mutual respect that eventually unite them.

Instead of allowing the importance of art to be self-evident, Stokes lectures his peers about how art defines civilization and such. But wouldn't they know this already?

"Monuments Men" possesses the gritty, realistic look of war-torn Europe. As for a gritty, realistic story with compelling characters? They've gone the way of those Picassos and Rembrandts -- missing.

And if you want to see the real star of "Monuments Men," just look for a French guy named "Emile." He's played by composer Desplat.

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