From the Last Row, On the Aisle:
Two Lighthearted Movies
18 June 2015
Not too far into Woman in Gold, an Austrian man approaches the elderly Maria Altman (played by Helen Mirren) and tells her that she ought to drop her legal action to regain possession of Klimt’s famous picture of her aunt. I don’t remember his words exactly, nor even the subtitle translation, but the gist of his remarks is, Give the Holocaust a rest. Water under the bridge. Move on. Get a life.
Haven’t we all felt that, at one time or another.
The beauty of Simon Curtis’s film is the way in which it silences such irritable grousing. This is no doubt largely because of Ms Mirren’s ability to carry all of Maria’s dreadful memories with full consciousness but also with a light spirit. But the film itself is visually lighthearted as well. Aside from the somber scenes in which the end of normal life for a very prosperous family of Viennese Jews is played out — and these scenes are as brief as they can possibly be — Woman in Gold is one of the sunniest of movies, and not just because a good deal of it is set in Los Angeles. Vienna looks great! The scene in which Maria and the two men who are helping her with her case (played by Ryan Reynolds and Daniel Brühl) climb the gentle slope between the two Belvedere palaces, with all of the old city stretched out behind them, is the best sort of tourist cheesecake, unsurpassed by those corny Technicolor comedies that were popular in the late Fifties. You almost think, this is fun!
And it is fun, even though your cheeks are burning with the streaks of tears. Because Woman in Gold is never oppressive or manipulative, because it focuses on a woman who is determined to make the best of things — a determination that she passes on to her tenacious but confused attorney, Randy Schoenberg (Mr Reynolds) — the Holocaust is indeed put in its place: right out in the open. By coincidence, of course, I recently read Look Who’s Back, a satire that, for all its laughs, generates an uneasy awareness of how very thinkable a replay of the Nazi nightmare would be in today’s shambolic world. We have not reached the point of “enough already” with the Holocaust, not remotely. At the climax, Schoenberg makes a speech exhorting the Austrian government to disconnect itself from its shameful predecessor and, because Ryan Reynolds is delivering, the speech is both formidably decent and good to hear. We still have a lot of work to do on being our best selves, and Woman in Gold reminds us of this without putting us in mind of tedious homework.
Maybe a simpler way to talk about this film would be to say that it worked for me as Schindler’s List, like most Steven Spielberg movies, could not. I didn’t feel that I’d been dragged through an unsanitary funhouse of horrors. I felt as though restitution were one of the most important underpinnings of civilization. When Maria Altman made her first postwar visit to Austria — a visit she swore she would never make — the Austrians ought to have pressed her family’s five Klimts upon her and sent her back to California with them, joyfully relieving themselves of the disgrace of having worshiped The Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I as the nation’s “Mona Lisa.” A key element of the case for restitution was the fact that the state owned the picture. This is also the crux of the story’s significance. No sovereignty can afford to be seen sullied by the fruits of lawless plunder. No statute of limitations can whitewash such offenses. Yes, justice was done when the portrait was restored to Maria Altman. But the more important point is that justice was done when Austria got rid of it. And that is what makes Woman in Gold a lighthearted movie. It makes you see that the story ended happily for Austria as well. It does not pretend that there are no Austrians who would disagree with this proposition, but it nevertheless insists, and quite persuasively to any open mind, that there were no losers in the case.
So now the picture hangs in a city of Jewish prosperity even greater than that of old Vienna. And while New York is nowhere near as grand as Vienna, the picture has moved from one palace to another. Its new home is, perhaps regrettably, a lot smaller than its previous one — the lines to get in are extraordinary. Let us hope that its new country never slips as its homeland did.
I saw a very different sort of picture last week: Spy. The only statement that can be made about Spy and Woman in Gold is that the latter picture is better at showing off foreign capitals. Oh — and cameras were used to make them both. Beyond that, the two movies are incomparable, so I’m probably making a mistake by writing about them in the same entry. But perhaps not. Spy is delightful. I know what you’re going to say about Melissa McCarthy, but I’m here to tell you that she has vacated the bathroom. In Paul Feig’s new movie, at any rate, Ms McCarthy is neither rude nor crude. The humor that she gets out of being hefty is not essential to her performance; she plays up her character’s plainness (as perceived by men), not her plus size. The more I think about Spy, the more feminist it seems. Miranda Hart’s participation doesn’t hurt.
Nor do the performances of Jude Law and Jason Statham, which are brilliant self-parodies. Mr Law’s impersonation of a rather brainless matinee idol does not, it is true, suggest an enormous challenge, but the vigor with which Mr Statham exaggerates the powers of his usual action figure is the funniest thing going. It’s as though the actor wanted to be sure that you know how preposterous he finds the scripts that they keep sending him to be. The line between grim heroics and comic lunacy, it turns out, is nothing but a question of turning up the voltage, all the way into the red. He owns the movie’s funny ending — and I’ll bet it would make even Sean Connery laugh out loud. (Miranda Hart: “Does he know it’s a lake?”) He has a super-funny line, totally in character, right as the ending is getting going. Where did you get that suit, someone asks him. Well I made it myself, didn’t I, he says. The macho soufflé, having risen just a tad too high, promptly collapses, but all we can hear is our own laughter.
Everyone in the movie is great. I remember when Allison Janney was a mainstay of MTC casts, and now look: she’s doing JK Simmons! Rose Byrne makes such a perfidious villainess that I thought she was Kristen Scott Thomas! But a lot of the credit goes to a perfectly-timed screenplay and the deft deployment of Bond-type music. In the end, Spy is the Bond parody that makes you forget all about James Bond, if only because you simply cannot think about him when Melissa McCarthy is doing the throttling.