Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline have, collectively, given me hundreds of hours of viewing pleasure on stages and screens large and small. So I figured, how bad could a movie with both of them be, particularly one set in as photogenic a city as Paris?
You’ve probably guessed the answer: pretty effing bad.
The setup is promising: Kevin Kline’s Mathias Gold has inherited a Paris apartment (really more like a townhouse, complete with garden) from his father, and we soon discover that the apartment is not only the bulk of the son’s inheritance but, financially, practically his only asset. Too bad the prize real estate comes with a booby prize: its immovable tenant Mathilde Girard (Smith). Through a quintessentially French real estate arrangement, Smith is the apartment’s viager, meaning that while she sold the apartment decades ago, she still has the legal right to not only live there but to collect what amounts to an annuity from the actual owner. Ah, the French they are a funny race.
Gold must figure out how to sell an apartment containing a polite but shrewd, tough-minded 92-year-old who, thanks to the age-defying effects of daily red-wine consumption, threatens to become a centenarian. Also in residence is Smith’s daughter Chloé, played by an appropriately chilly, explicably hostile Kristin Scott Thomas (her character will become homeless as soon as mama breathes her last).
However, what starts out as a culture-clash comedy plods inexorably into a dreary, melodramatic marshmallow of buried secrets, crippling childhood traumas, and a highly improbable family romance. You see, Mathilde was not just the previous owner of the apartment purchased by Mathias’ father; she was his lover, and the dad’s adultery was the proximate cause of Mathias’ unhappy, painful childhood and, we are meant to assume, a lifetime of bad relationships (he is three-for-three in the divorce sweepstakes). Chloé is also damaged goods, and is herself carrying on an affair with a married man in a consciously unconscious “like mother, like daughter” generational repetition.
Can comedy and tragedy be blended in art, as they are in life? Most definitely. Does doing this require skill, deftness, and a certain artistic distance? Even more definitely. Unfortunately, these last are all in short supply from the writer/director Israel Horovitz, who is in love not only with his pain but with the many words he uses to describe it. (The film is based on his stage play, and the setups and talkiness both show.) Writers often want to direct their own work to protect it from dilution, commercialization, and a host of other ills, but a different creative perspective could have been helpful in steering My Old Lady out of the swamps of self-indulgence and sentimentality that bog it down.
There are a few powerful, emotionally pungent moments scattered throughout the film - how could there not be, given the quality of the actors and the resonance of the subject matter? But they were just frequent enough to make me aware of how bland and by-the-numbers the rest of the story is. There’s not even any visual variety; except for a few picture-postcard views of Notre Dame and the Seine, Paris’ beauty remains resolutely offscreen.
The actors do what they can. Smith can’t help but be dryly adorable - no one else can make even the most banal dialogue sound like Noël Coward - and Kline is magnetic and always watchable. Perhaps too magnetic; the energetic, self-possessed actor to some extent overwhelms the whiny, loserish character he is playing.
Ironically, Kline may be too much the old-fashioned movie star to be totally convincing as a naturalistic screen actor. (Remember that he won his Oscar for playing an over-the-top maniacal buffoon in the hilarious A Fish Called Wanda.) It’s interesting that his other current film role is as movie-star-in-decline Errol Flynn (The Last of Robin Hood), which I haven’t seen. Remember also the deathless line from Alan Swann, the Flynn-ish figure in My Favorite Year: “I’m not an actor. I’m a movie star!” Kline is an actor, but he’s a big one - certainly too big for this small, sad story.
In any case, don’t be taken in by the Broadway and Masterpiece Theater credentials of My Old Lady. Stay home and stream a double bill of Wanda and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie instead.