'Woman in Gold'
The Oscar bait prestige picture has become so ubiquitous in the Harvey Weinstein era that those movies have become just as formulaic and predictable as the mainstream Hollywood fare they’re supposed to provide escape from.
Enter ‘Woman in Gold’, a movie with everything that we’re supposed to want from a classy drama. We get to see Dame Helen Mirren being sassy, flashbacks filled with Nazis to pull at heartstrings, and Ryan Reynolds being charming as he learns to love Mirren and feel guilt over the Holocaust. Even better, there’s a “true story” label slapped on the poster to make all the manipulative fluff feel real. The movie wants us to feel as hard as a teenage goth kid with a diary in the hopes that we’ll weep and cheer. Unfortunately, this pretty awards-courting trash is getting increasingly harder to fall for.
The great Helen Mirren stars as a prickly Austrian refugee who spent most of her life running a successful boutique shop in Los Angeles. She should be more than just a successful shopkeeper, though. She was once the golden child of one of the wealthiest families in Austria until the Nazis showed up and ripped away her family’s riches along with every other member of a particular race/religion. She’s found peace with her new life, but it still hurts. After the death of her sister, she decides that it’s time to claim some sort of reparation. So, she hires a friend’s budding lawyer son to help her sue the government of Austria for a pair of paintings from her childhood home that are now worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
It’s tricky, of course. The Austrian government and art officials want nothing to do with such madness, but they find help in a mysteriously guilt-ridden Austrian played by Daniel Bruhl. (Think he might have a secret Nazi family history to atone for? Hmmm…). Plus, Mirren is so full of attitude that Reynolds just can’t take it, but maybe he’ll come to appreciate her crabby ways. They don’t have a chance with the case, so human bonding will have to do. Oh no, wait, this is based on a true story, right? Would they make an inspirational Oscar drama with an unhappy ending? Dammit, I just figured this whole thing out.
The big failing of ‘Woman in Gold’ is just how tediously manipulative and dull it is. It doesn’t have a moment that can’t be predicted or a scene you haven’t seen done better before. (Most recently, ‘Philomena‘ offered a superior rendition of the same basic story). It’s as if the filmmakers responsible arranged a supercut of successful Oscar movies from the past and then based the screenplay on that. ‘My Week with Marilyn’ director Simon Curtis ensures that the movie looks like a classy television production at all times so we won’t get distracted by any sort of cinematic visuals or techniques. No, that would get in the way of all the heartstring torturing manipulation! It’s also one of those movies in which characters look longingly out of windows constantly to set up flashbacks.
In fact, the entire movie seems to be an excuse to stage as many cartoonish Nazi flashbacks as possible to milk audiences for the guilt, shock and shame associated with that tragic time. There’s nothing wrong with movies about the Holocaust. It’s important to explore dark periods of history. However, no one involved with ‘Woman in Gold’ has any insights to add to that well-trodden terrain. They’re just exploiting Holocaust and Nazi imagery for cheap emotional bumps, and it’s more than a little gross to behold.
Whenever the movie isn’t exploiting WWII atrocity guilt, it’s playing into another awards drama cliché: age-clash comedy and warmhearted acceptance between a cranky old lady and a handsome young movie star. Now, Helen Mirren is obviously a remarkable actress, and Ryan Reynolds is even pretty good himself in the right role. (See ‘Buried‘. Seriously, do it.) But with roles this cardboard and dramatic arcs this obvious, there’s simply nothing they can do. Sure, it’s fun to see Mirren be crabby for a bit, but that gets tired quickly, and aside from the moments in which she looks longingly off-screen to set up a flashback, she essentially only has that single note to play for the entire film. As for Reynolds, he doesn’t even have one note to his character. He’s essentially there as a plot device to provide anything that Mirren needs that will move the story forward, and also serve as a sounding board for flashbacks. Other recognizable actors like Bruhl and Katie Holmes appear in small supporting roles, and somehow they have even less to do than Reynolds so they never register.
‘Woman in Gold’ is so calculated to leech off of the successes of previous movies that it never bothers to tell its own compelling story or give its well-paid cast much to do. Instead, it plays like a glossy, multimillion dollar checklist of awards bait clichés. With a little irony, this could have possibly been a knowing parody. Unfortunately, no one involved had any sense of irony to speak of, so any laughs this thing gets are unintentional.