Say this for George Clooney, film director: He consistently makes films for adults. So it's too bad that, with his new WWII film "The Monuments Men," he sometimes treats that adult audience like children in need of a spoon-feed.
Adapted by Clooney and Grant Heslov from the book by Robert M. Edsel (with Bret Witter), "The Monuments Men" merrily fictionalizes the true story of the Allied armies' Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, tasked with recovering, restoring and returning to rightful owners buildings, monuments and artwork -- while the Nazis continue to steal paintings and sculptures for a planned Fuhrer Museum. Clooney plays art historian Frank Stokes (patterned on conservationist George L. Stout), who presses for the importance of saving monuments from bombs, and art from Hitler's grubby little hands.
Stokes recruits art restorer James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), French art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), theater director Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and British art consultant Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) to shadow troops and gain access to lost or endangered art. The aging "monuments men"'s mission requires them to submit to basic training and face life-threatening dangers in the field, but as we're told again and again, the risk is worth the reward.
Viewers should be trusted to work that out for themselves, but Clooney and Heslov don't seem to know how to develop Stokes with anything other than unnecessarily heavy-handed speeches and weirdly downcast "pep talks," while the admittedly well-cast supporting characters are mostly just played for generic bonhomie (Damon gets a little more to chew on as he plies Cate Blanchett's French art expert for intel and contends with her romantic advances).
The particulars of the manufactured plot aren't terribly convincing: It's easy enough to feel one's chain being yanked when the screenwriters recognize a need for a little something approaching action, or at least urgency. Clooney and Heslov presumably would've been better off packing in true details of the titular group's investigations to go along with the loving glimpses of the Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges. After all, if there are no fascinating details, why make the film? And how did Edsel fill his book?
"The Monuments Men" comes on with a jaunty sense of humor and a throwback style (as in his darker picture "Good Night, and Good Luck," Clooney betrays his nostalgia for painterly photography and bygone rhythms of dialogue, music and editing), abetted by Alexandre Desplat's nimble score. The story offers a few lovely little grace notes along the way, and occasionally Clooney shows an almost Spielbergian resourcefulness for staging bits of suspense and surprise.
More often than not, though, sedate scenes fizzle, WWII clichés bore or naked emotional appeals overdo it: Put together, it all feels a bit like an overearnest deleted subplot from someone else's war epic, rather than a confident Clooney picture.