I am not qualified to comment on which road surface takes one to hell, but I will state unequivocally that the superhighway to mediocre cinema is paved with the noblest of intentions. The more serious the subject, the more earnest the filmmakers, the greater the chance for a cure for insomnia. Solemnity is not, in and of itself, a guarantee of profundity.
But humor can have a leavening and enriching effect that takes the edge off the droning and sharpens the point of attack. A case in point is “Woman in Gold,” the new film by long-time BBC stalwart Simon Curtis, which opens Wednesday, April 1.
The film within a film of Curtis’ previous theatrical feature, “My Weekend with Marilyn,” brought a certain sly wit to the incongruous pairing of the eponymous Monroe with Sir Laurence Olivier on “The Prince and the Showgirl,” as seen by a humble production assistant. “Woman in Gold,” scripted by Alexi Kaye Campbell, surprisingly uses a similar structure to explore the Shoah and its aftermath, with rather more mixed results.
Although the film limns the same events recounted in Anne-Marie O’Connor’s well-received 2012 non-fiction book “The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” that work’s title is absent from the credits, which state that the film is “based on the life stories of E. Randol Schoenberg and Maria Altmann.” The story is, by now, well known. Altmann and her Jewish relatives were victims of the Anschluss, the 1938 German annexation of Austria. Their assets, which were seized, included an extensive collection of important modern art, crowned by five Klimt paintings including the portrait of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. Through circuitous and dubious means, the paintings ended up in the famous Belvedere Museum in Vienna. Altmann (played in the film by Helen Mirren), her husband (Max Irons) and her sister escaped the Nazis; her parents were murdered by them.
The film opens at the funeral of Maria’s sister, with Maria mentioning to a friend that she needs a lawyer to help recover the paintings. The lady suggests her grandson, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), a clever, good-looking young man with a young wife (Katie Holmes) and child. Having failed as a sole practitioner, he is about to begin work at a high-powered LA firm. Schoenberg has his own family history with the Nazis and Austria; his grandfather was compser Arnold Schoenberg.
There is more friction than satisfaction the first time that Maria and Randy meet, and from the start, a legal judgement against a foreign sovereign government is a long shot. The friction both masks and nurtures mutual affection, and as the lawyer begins to examine the case he finds reason for guarded optimism. The two go to Vienna where they are faced with hostility from the Austrian government and museum officials, and even if you don’t already know the outcome, you can guess within the first 20 minutes of the film.
Curtis directs “Woman in Gold” with a heavy hand, fitting his sluggish rhythms to Campbell’s generally stolid screenplay. The film’s pacing is lugubrious, made even more so by the many flashbacks to the events of 1938, depicted in the desaturated color that has become de rigueur in the genre.
Three elements, however, rescue “Woman in Gold” from the wax museum. Although the legal issues involved in the case are complex and occasionally abstruse, Campbell’s script makes them understandable to the non-lawyer without over-simplifying them. As a result, both the significance of the case and the height of the obstacles Schoenberg and Altmann face are clearer than in most courtroom dramas. Second, there are moments of genuine humor in the contemporary sequences, pushed along by sprightly cameos by Charles Dance as Randy’s boss at the law firm and Jonathan Pryce as an unaccountably avuncular William Rehnquist.
Finally, there is a very real chemistry between the film’s two leads. As usual, Mirren brings gravitas, heft and focus to her role and a genuine self-deprecating wit; Reynolds, who has been smug and smart-alecky in most of his previous performances, some of which are unwatchable, is grounded here by Mirren, with the result that the charm that some have ascribed to the young American actor finally emerges as real. Thanks largely to the redoubtable Mirren, “Woman in Gold” is a bearable entertainment whose important message doesn’t overwhelm its real intelligence.
“Woman in Gold,” directed by Simon Curtis, opens Wednesday, April 1 at the Bow Tie Chelsea Theater (23rd Street and Eighth Ave.,  691-5519), and the Jacob Burns Film Center (364 Manville Road, Pleasantville, -747-5555).