[Screen It]

(2015) (Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds) (PG-13)

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Drama: A young American lawyer tries to help an elderly woman regain her family's valuable and famous paintings from an Austrian museum where they've hung for decades after Nazis stole them during WWII.
It's 1998, and following the death of her sister, Los Angeles resident and shopkeeper Maria Altmann (HELEN MIRREN) inquires with a friend about that woman's son, Randy Schoenberg (RYAN REYNOLDS). He's a lawyer -- married to Pam (KATIE HOLMES) and with a young child -- who tried running his own firm but is now working for a bigger firm and his immediate boss, Sherman (CHARLES DANCE). Maria is interested in hiring Randy -- despite his inexperience in the matter -- since her homeland of Austria has started restitution for property seized by the Nazis during WWII.

Then, Maria (TATIANA MASLANY) was just a 21-year-old, newly married to Fritz (MAX IRONS), and having grown up in a prosperous Jewish household in Vienna filled with artwork including a portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer (ANTJE TRAUE), who earlier died at the age of 25. But the Nazis then took over Vienna in 1938, subjected the Jewish population to horrible atrocities, and seized most of their belongings, including that portrait of Adele. Now known as "Lady in Gold," it hangs in a prominent art museum and is to Austria what the Mona Lisa is to France.

With the help of local investigative reporter Hubertus Czernin (DANIEL BRUHL), Randy and Maria try pleading her case to the Austrian restitution committee to have that work and others returned to her, but to no avail. While Maria concedes that defeat, Randy -- whose grandparents knew Maria's family and lost their lives in a concentration camp -- returns home a changed man, determined to make things right. From that point on, he tries to figure out a way to help Maria win back her family heirlooms and regain some of her long-lost dignity.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Back in early 2013, a December release looked like a lock to be an Oscar frontrunner. It was based on a true and quite frankly amazing story, featured a terrific cast, and had George Clooney both in front of and behind the camera. But when the release date was pushed back to February of the following year and thus out of Oscar contention, people realized something was amiss (certainly beyond the "it's not done yet" excuse given at the time).

And when "The Monuments Men" finally traveled from the projector to the silver screen, the remarkable tale of the Allies sending in forces to rescue stolen artwork from the Nazis during WWII turned out to be a dud and, as many a reviewer pointed out, far from a masterpiece.

In yet another of those cinematic "coincidences" featuring similarly themed or plotted films that are released fairly close to each other, we now have another film based on those art-stealing Nazis and it's similarly going for the gold, literally and figuratively.

This time it arrives in the form of "Woman in Gold," and while it's similarly based on a true story, its temporal setting is split between the late 1930s and the tale's "present day" (six decades later) where the main story begins after a brief, artsy introduction to the titular subject.

That's when we meet Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), a local shop owner in Los Angeles who's just inherited her late sister's belongings, which gets her thinking about other former possessions that no longer are in the family queue. Those would be all sorts of paintings, artwork and other things stolen from her Jewish family's home in Vienna as the Nazis fully took control of the city.

Now sixty years later, the Austrian government is going through the formality of offering restitution, although the odds of Maria getting her hands back on the titular painting of her late aunt are astronomical at best. And that's because Woman in Gold has become to Austria what the Mona Lisa is to France, a part of the national psyche.

Or so Maria and her lawyer are told by a local investigative reporter (Daniel Bruhl) who's decided to lend them a hand. And who exactly is Maria's lawyer? Certainly no high-priced, slick as oil trial attorney as that wouldn't provide much David vs. Goliath dramatic conflict. No, instead, Maria has decided on Van Wilder.

Okay, to be fair, she's getting Ryan Reynolds who once played that cinematic abomination and has somewhat redeemed himself in the years since then. Yet, the actor is the weak link here as, despite his best efforts and that of director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell, I just didn't buy him in the part, or his motivational switch that occurs once he travels to his grandparents' homeland and visits a Holocaust memorial.

I completely get that it's supposed to so move him that he later quits his job just to keep working on this case, but the way it's presented here just didn't work for me. The rest of the performances are good, especially but certainly surprisingly from Mirren. The pic's various tech credits are solid across the board.

While the film will obviously remind viewers of Clooney's pic due to the direct historical connection, another film will likely come to mind -- "Philomena." Both regard women dealing with their past and specifically something taken from them, and include flashback scenes involving such atrocities all those decades ago. Those older ladies also exhibit a mixture of some naivety but also strong wills and determination in fighting the long odds facing them. And both end up accompanied by younger men who try to help them get justice, some of which involves them traveling together to a foreign country.

Yet, whereas that was an excellent and moving offering, this one only comes off as adequate and doesn't hit the emotional moments as hard as it should have. All of which is too bad considering the film -- like "The Monuments Men" before it -- stems from a fairly remarkable true story. "Woman in Gold" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 17, 2015 / Posted April 1, 2015

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