I never would have expected that modern art and the plight of Austria’s secularized Jews factor crucially in a couple of “feel-good” pictures currently in theaters: the docudrama Woman in Gold and the Nicholas Sparks adaptation The Longest Ride. In the first, Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, an LA-based Austrian immigrant who successfully sued the Austrian government in the late 1990s to reclaim several Gustav Klimt paintings that the Nazis had taken illegally from her family six decades earlier. In the second, Oona Chaplin (daughter of Geraldine and granddaughter of Charlie) plays an Austrian Jew who emigrates to North Carolina in the late 1930s and later becomes a collector of modern art. Both films are undeniably treacly, trading in gross simplifications and telling viewers exactly what to think and feel at every moment. I find Longest Ride the more tolerable of the two—in large part because it acknowledges its pedigree as genre entertainment, rather than trying to pass itself off as a history lesson—though that’s not to say it’s any less naive about Jews or modern art.
Like another current docudrama, Desert Dancer, Woman in Gold exploits the suffering of an entire people as the backdrop for a story of individual empowerment. Mirren’s Altmann is a brittle but sympathetic spinster with lots of bad jokes up her sleeve—a benign bubbe stereotype xeroxed from lesser Neil Simon. (Watching Mirren apply her considerable skill to the part is a bit like watching Laurence Olivier guest star on an episode of Three’s Company.) Though she managed to escape Austria, Altmann lost most of her family to the Holocaust, and the filmmakers use this tragedy to explain every one of her traits that isn’t instantly lovable. Gold puts so much pressure on the audience to root for her that one almost feels bad for the cartoonish Austrian officials who fight her in court—they’re simply foils for her eventual triumph, which is telegraphed from practically the first scene.
The movie plays like one long victory lap, showing Altmann overcoming one fear after another: confronting her past, returning to Vienna for the first time since fleeing, publicly defending her right to the Klimt paintings. The cultural legacies of Klimt and the Altmann family are pretty much incidental to the project of constant uplift—as is the music of Arnold Schoenberg, whose grandson comes to defend Altmann in court. The filmmakers feel obliged to acknowledge Schoenberg’s contribution to modern music with a couple lines of dialogue that feel cribbed from the first paragraph of the composer’s Wikipedia page. But like the brief discussions of Klimt, the invocations of Schoenberg come off as non sequiturs, since the idea of intellectually challenging art is clearly beyond the filmmakers’ reach.
In Woman in Gold, modern art is emblematic of a lost tradition, one the filmmakers show little interest in exploring. The Longest Ride also invokes modern art, ironically, to conservative ends, as Chaplin’s character begins collecting art to make up for her unfulfilled desire to have children. Unlike Gold, however, the film considers how art affects individuals’ spiritual development as well as society as a whole. Chaplin responds to modern painting as a form of pure emotional expression—it’s just the love she shares with her husband, played as a young man by Jack Huston. Playing the husband as an old widower, Alan Alda relates to a young art student (Britt Robertson) how his wife found deep satisfaction in viewing paintings and in patronizing painters. It’s some of the most tender acting I’ve seen from Alda, who manages to make the contrived material sound practically natural. (In fact everyone onscreen acquits him- or herself surprisingly well. George Tillman Jr., whose previous directorial credits include Soul Food and the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious, really seems to care about actors, allowing every speaking performer at least one little personal inflection.)
In Longest Ride it seems like everything serves to validate the importance of monogamous, romantic love. The film moves between Alda’s story, which takes place between the 1940s and ’60s, and Robertson’s story, which takes place in the present. She’s fallen, improbably, for a rodeo cowboy, but doesn’t want to get serious because she wants to leave North Carolina for the New York art scene. Alda inspires her to value love above all else—his marriage withstood great challenges and became stronger as a result. This belief in marriage as the enduring foundation of adult life belongs to many cultures, not just Jews. But by presenting monogamy within the context of Jewish tradition—a subject that the filmmakers seem to know very little about—Longest Ride makes it seem at once exotic and universal.