Movie Review: ‘Monuments Men’ solid and understated

Imagine a big-budget war movie with a dynamite cast that’s very old-fashioned, very slow and generally played as comedy.

Not what you’d expect from writer-director George Clooney – which may explain why critics didn’t care for “Monuments Men,” the fact-based tale of art experts charged with saving priceless works from the Nazi war machine.

In some cases, paintings and sculptures by such artists as Renoir, Picasso and Rembrandt had been summarily seized and gifted to various German officers; thousands of others lay stashed in secret hideaways and were – by the Fuhrer’s orders – destined to be destroyed if the Third Reich fell.

So as the war winds down through 1944, a team of aging profs and scholars – played by Clooney and Matt Damon, along with John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”) and Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”) – races to locate these treasures before they’re lost.

It’s a cast to die for – especially when you add Cate Blanchett as a French Resistance worker and lesser-known Bob Balaban, a marvelous character actor whose career goes all the way back to “Midnight Cowboy” (he also did “Catch-22,” “Close Encounters,” “Altered States,” “Seinfeld,” “Best in Show,” “Gosford Park,” “Capote,” “Web Therapy” and “Moonrise Kingdom”).

Balaban and Murray make a terrifically understated comic duo, struggling – like the other art gurus – to fit into a war where most soldiers are half their age.

Indeed, some gentle comedy and a few quiet deaths is about all the excitement “MM” has to offer; its self-deprecatory tone and sedate, old-fashioned feel takes some getting used to – but I enjoyed it.

Though names and details have been changed, “MM” seems to stick to the facts, eschewing the usual over-dramatization in movies supposedly inspired by actual events.

The acting is solid, though we have so many key characters that none develop much individuality -with the exception of Blanchett, who could bring life-like depth to a crayoned cardboard cutout.

(This flatness is especially glaring in one character whose struggle with a checkered past is not revealed till after his death!)

The movie’s low-key pace meshes well with its traditional morality, which feels like something from the 1950s. These are noble, self-effacing men with few apparent flaws, all willing to stand up – and even die – for what they believe in; one goes so far as to turn down a come-on from a handsome French lass, just because he’s married; imagine that!

Fortunately, “MM’s” bland and shapeless narrative is partly offset by a dandy Alexandre Desplat score and spectacular visuals, re-creating the war’s European front with stunning authenticity. Despite effective location shooting, a good deal of CGI was clearly necessary throughout these scenes – but I’ll be darned if I could tell where it was.

We’d have less time to marvel at all this if the movie packed a bit more punch; but then, don’t we always complain about the way Hollywood exaggerates true stories?

3 stars out of 4.

Rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking.