And here we thought that George Clooney was this era’s Cary Grant even if, with his squinty smile and no-sweat insouciance, he’s really closer to Clark Gable. As it turns out, Mr. Clooney seems to have been harboring a desire to tap into his inner Gregory Peck — noble, stolid, dull — as he does in “The Monuments Men,” which he both directed and stars in. It was Peck who led the team of World War II Allied saboteurs in“The Guns of Navarone,” one of those men-on-a-mission movies, a subgenre that includes everything from “The Dirty Dozen” to the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy, which starred Mr. Clooney in a fizzier, less sanctimonious mode.
Now it’s Mr. Clooney’s turn as Frank Stokes, an art historian and the story’s hub, to lead a charmingly quirky crew in a World War II operation to rescue Europe’s artistic treasures from the Nazis. Stokes is the man for the job: He enters wrapped in a professorial air, wearing spectacles and a salt-and-pepper beard while lecturing President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the dangers posed to “the greatest historical achievements known to man.” These would be the artworks that the Nazis began systematically to steal — by emptying museums and confiscating work owned by Jewish collectors — soon after Hitler, that famously failed painter and lover of kitsch, took power.
Written by Mr. Clooney and his producing partner, Grant Heslov, “The Monuments Men” slices off a sliver of a great World War II story and turns it into a lightweight entertainment that doesn’t ask you to think too hard. The story’s real-life heroes were a group of curators, restorers, archivists and the like who served in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section, an Allied effort to protect Europe’s cultural heritage. Nicknamed the Monuments Men, this group eventually included 350 or so men and women from 13 countries who were with the unit from 1943 to 1951. Its exploits have been related in various books, including “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” written by Robert M. Edsel, with Bret Witter.
Based on Mr. Edsel’s book, the film whittles the Monuments Men story down to a handful of ideal types, including Stokes, who’s based on George Leslie Stout, a conservator at the Fogg Museum at Harvard. It’s Stokes who rounds up the team members, each of whom is introduced in a short, snappy, comic scene doing what he does best: Matt Damon plays James Granger, a museum man first seen touching up a ceiling (prompting a Michelangelo joke); John Goodman, as a sculptor, Walter Garfield, enters hacking away at a hunk of stone like a John Henry Rodin. Bob Balaban, seen leading a rehearsal, plays Preston Savitz, an effete fussbudget who, I was surprised to learn, was “inspired by” Lincoln Kirstein who, among his many accomplishments, helped found the New York City Ballet.
Mr. Balaban is adorable in that Bob Balaban way, somewhat elfin, and dry as Melba toast. He smiles through jokes and some physical comedy done at his expense, largely from Bill Murray, whose character, Richard Campbell, is a composite of several real Monuments Men including an architect, Robert Kelley Posey. (Mr. Murray plays “Bill Murray” just fine.) A captain, Posey served with Gen. George S. Patton and the Third Army, and was teamed up with Kirstein, a private first class also with the Third. Mr. Edsel describes Posey and Kirstein as an odd couple but brilliantly paired. Mr. Clooney literalizes the Felix and Oscar shtick and turns Savitz and Campbell into sweet, sentimentalized funnymen who all but bumble into their historic moment. There’s nothing brilliant about them.
That’s too bad, because if there’s anyone who you expect to smarten up a joint, it’s Mr. Clooney. The brain trust behind the original Monuments Men was staggering and included individuals who helped run some of America’s greatest cultural institutions. At the very least you expect their fictional counterparts to exchange a little shoptalk and some thoughts on art, literature and the latest restoration techniques or maybe just gossip about Picasso’s latest mistress. Kirstein brought George Balanchine to America (together they founded City Ballet and the School of American Ballet); was friends with the architect Philip Johnson; and was involved in the planning of Lincoln Center. Surely he did more than coo like a baby about the crackers in his care package, as Savitz does.
Mr. Clooney doesn’t just simplify the characters; he also turns them into pleasantly innocuous caricatures that at times edge into cartoons. Despite a passing reference to John Wayne — and what feels like a hopeful invocation of Wayne’s later work with Howard Hawks — the characters are less “El Dorado” types and more like Cutie (Mr. Damon), Goofy (Mr. Murray), Starchy (Mr. Balaban), Boozy (Hugh Bonneville as Donald Jeffries), Frenchy (Jean Dujardin as Jean Claude Clermont) and Jewish Guy (Dimitri Leonidas as Sam Epstein). Cate Blanchett isn’t quite Snow White, but her French frump, Claire Simone, enjoys a princess-at-the ball moment. (The character is a take on Rose Valland, a French museum employee turned Resistance spy who kept records of what the Nazis pilfered.)
It can be nice to spend time with these actors even when you don’t believe their characters for a single second, and there’s no denying this movie’s easy pleasures, including the guaranteed satisfaction that comes in watching, yet again, the Nazis go down in defeat. Yet because Mr. Clooney can’t figure out what kind of story this is, he too often slips into pandering mode, including in his own performance, which is filled with too many smiles and speeches. He also gives himself the worst scene in the film: an encounter with a captured German, Colonel Wegner (Holger Handtke), who being an official villain — he’s a Nazi, kills in cold blood and has thin lips — says something awful about Jews. Don’t worry. Mr. Clooney’s character sets that guy straight because, you know, somebody has to.
“The Monuments Men” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It’s a war movie, if mostly a bloodless one.