George Clooney's new film, "The Monuments Men," has a great true story to tell but he dumbs it down so much that it's hardly worth telling.
In the final couple years of World War II, the Allied Forces assembled a team of art experts to identify, track down and eventually rescue thousands of works of art stolen and hidden away by the Nazis.
Over 300 middle-aged art historians, curators, and restorers raced across Europe - while the war was still going on, mind you - to hunt down all this art before Hitler and the Nazis could destroy it.
They were dubbed the Monuments Men, and this movie tells their exciting tale. Or at least, it seems like it would be an exciting tale. Set against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation of Europe, some of the art world's sharpest minds are transformed into undercover spies who use highly refined detective skills to save for posterity the most beautiful paintings and sculptures the world has ever seen. You've got the dangers of war, the beauty of art, and the menace of Nazis. How could you miss?
Well, here's how George Clooney - who wrote, directed and starred in this movie - missed. He doesn't trust his audience.
For starters, Clooney seems so uncertain that we will care about all this missing art, that he has to keep reiterating in solemn voice overs just how important art is.
"While we must and will win this war we should also remember the high price that will be paid if the very foundation of modern society is destroyed," Clooney narrates.
The film's narration makes this case so often - that if we don't care about art, then we don't care about civilization. And if we don't care about civilization, then it's like the Nazi mentality has prevailed. It's as if Clooney doesn't quite believe it himself.
Tone is also a problem. Clooney chooses to make this a light-hearted adventure story. It often feels like Ocean's Eleven circa World War II, which is fine if all you're after is a "Hogan's Heroes" kind of fun.
But when bad things happen - this is a deadly war zone, after all - the film can't support the dramatic resonance it so clearly yearns for. A heavy-handed sentimental streak also jars with the overall jaunty mood.
But the biggest flaw in Clooney's approach is that he reduces all these supposedly brilliant experts to a handful of cardboard stereotypes, none of whom seems to know much of anything about art.
We've got a Brit who's trying to overcome the disgrace of a drinking problem, a Frenchman who, you know, is just so very "French," and a variety of various American types - Matt Damon is the straight arrow, John Goodman, the good-natured big man, Bill Murray the joker who mercilessly needles his much shorter partner, and George Clooney, the stoic father figure who runs the operation.
Despite the fact that these actors each get one big scene to demonstrate a little depth of character, none of them makes much of an impression because not one of the characters rings true.
Unlike the Nazi loot these Monuments Men are seeking, this movie is no work of art. More like a cheap knock off.