In construction, wit and delivery, jokes don't get much better than the good-natured zinger that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler lobbed at George Clooney last month at the Golden Globes. The one about Hollywood's 52-year-old bachelor king preferring to drift into space and die rather than spend another minute with a woman his own age (as Clooney's character does in Gravity, opposite 49-year-old Sandra Bullock).
In construction, wit and delivery, Clooney's new movie, The Monuments Men — which he directed, co-wrote and co-produced with usual partner Grant Heslov, and in which he stars — could be a lot better. But one complaint you can't make about it is that it's youth-obsessed — or youthful at all. Down to Downton Abbey patriarch Hugh Bonneville's 1.25-hanky supporting role, this well-intentioned, sleepily paced World War II caper is basically a $70 million PBS movie. It assembles a clutch of well-regarded, award-friendly actors known for their relatively high IQs (Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman) and lets them say smarter things than most movies allow — about history, about art, about matters of life and death. In no other picture will you see Murray draw a pistol in search of the Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges. Clooney gives you Paris on the brink of liberation, Jean Dujardin (Oscar-winning star of The Artist) on the brink of English, enough voice-over to send even Ken Burns out to the lobby for Milk Duds.
It is, at a minimum, better than Leatherheads.
But The Monuments Men operates at just that: a minimum — a comfortable, charismatic, forgettable minimum. As usual when he directs, Clooney keeps himself static and just off the plot's center, appearing more than performing. In his first scene, he wears an academic's neat beard and stands at a lectern in the dark, giving a slide-driven lesson in art history to FDR. You get the feeling that Clooney might prefer this Harvard dress-up to the Army uniform he has worn before. Like too much of what follows, it's a confidently rendered, dramatically inert bit of exposition, too much book and not enough liberty.
The book is Robert M. Edsel's fine 2009 The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, which traces the efforts of some 350 men and women who made up the Allied Powers' Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section. From 1943 through 1951, they worked to recover thousands of pieces of art displaced by the war, most of it stolen or destroyed by the Nazis. Clooney plays Frank Stokes, a fictional version of George Stout, the Iowa-born art conservator who was among the first in the section. Edsel describes Stout as, among other things, "debonair," and Clooney dutifully sounds that note but not much more — serious when serious things happen, light when Damon is around.
Clooney's actors seem eager to out-underplay their boss. Even Dujardin dims his mugging to refrigerator-bulb strength. The script keeps the cast broken into pairs for much of the movie, which at least results in small, knowing illustrations of repertory companies overlapping, concentrated IMDB Venn diagrams of where Steven Soderbergh veterans meet Wes Anderson standbys and then trip over Joel and Ethan Coen favorites. Like Soderbergh's Oceans trilogy, The Monuments Men is foremost a buddy movie made up of multiple Hope-Crosby combinations, the kind of product that gives actor-directors a good name. Murray is granted an honest misting up, Balaban juices his Balabanian fussiness most of the way up, and fellow hams Goodman and Dujardin ground each other. And, of course, they — along with Damon and Bonneville and Blanchett — get to play scholars without having to wear much tweed.
What Clooney has essentially made is his first stab at an art-house movie, something fashioned for a demographic other than the people he dates. It's a kind of Best Exotic Marigold Oceans Hotel, and it gets points for sheer stubborn nerdiness. But, like Clooney's last outing as director — 2011's heavy-breathing but lightheaded The Ides of March — The Monuments Men also poses and answers a simple question in a complicated marketplace: How good does a George Clooney movie have to be? Better than this. But not very.