‘Monuments Men’ is solid, but underwhelming

Everything about “The Monuments Men” feels like a throwback to 1960’s classics like “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Great Escape.” Those movies were smash hits because their casts were absolutely bursting with star power and they provided unique takes on World War II.

Half a century later, George Clooney has directed a film that basically follows the same recipe. He’s assembled a pretty terrific cast that includes the likes of Bill Murray, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett and, of course, himself.

With a great story to tell and an old-school mentality, there is plenty to like about “The Monuments Men,” even if it never fully reaches its potential.

Perhaps the most old-school is that this is a World War II movie. It’s a period of history that has been documented so heavily in American cinema that mainstream audiences sort of lost interest several years ago.

However, to its credit, “The Monuments Men” tells a true and fascinating story that feels different from most war films in that there is only a tiny amount of actual warfare in its runtime.

In 1943, a program was put together by the Allies to recover works of art that the Nazis had stolen in their conquest of Europe and return them to their rightful owners. Hitler’s troops had hidden vast numbers of pilfered pieces in salt mines around the continent, and they had orders to destroy everything if the Führer was killed.

Yes, in case Hitler’s other actions weren’t sinister enough, he was also perfectly content with destroying hundreds of years’ worth of brilliant works of art.

Although several hundred people were enlisted to help the cause, “The Monuments Men” follows a small group of art enthusiasts whose readiness for combat is suspect at best. Clooney, Murray, Damon and Goodman are all as good as they’re expected to be, even if the dialogue isn’t as funny or snappy as the writers probably thought. It feels like the material doesn’t live up to its cast.

The lighthearted tone of the film works both to its favor and its detriment. Nobody wants to see guys like Goodman and Murray in totally serious roles, but the subject matter probably deserved a bit more gravitas than it was given here. It’s an incredibly important story, but there are times when the script makes it feel less significant than it should.

Where “The Monuments Men” most feels like a tribute to older films is its pace. Back then, movies were written under the assumption that the audience had a longer attention span, and that’s definitely the case here. Scenes just feel longer than they do in other modern movies, even if the runtime isn’t especially long. It might feel jarring to younger people.

Ultimately, “The Monuments Men” is entertaining, but not as special as it could have been with such a great story and cast. Those with an interest in the subject matter will probably enjoy it and be glad it exists, but it likely won’t stick with anyone for long afterward.