Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith in My Old Lady (Cohen Media Group)
One might think theater and film go hand in hand, but although the two mediums share a great deal in common, history has proven that what works in one discipline does not inherently translate to the other. As the film directorial debut of noted playwright Israel Horovitz, My Old Lady must work doubly hard to justify itself on celluloid in the face of its creator’s extensive theatrical background, as well as its own limited, stage-like scope.
The film follows Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), a depressed failed novelist who relocates from New York to Paris in order to inherit a large, expensive apartment that was left to him by his estranged father. However, Mathias’ intentions to sell and liquidate the flat for a quick buck are dashed when he realizes that his father had previously entered into an iron-clad contract known as a “viager” with Mathilde (Maggie Smith), a precocious old woman living downstairs.
French law dictates that once an apartment is purchased in a viager settlement, it cannot change hands until the original occupant passes away. Thus begins a tense waiting game, as the frustrated Mathias tries to stay afloat while living upstairs from the very old crow denying him his rightful fortune.
Along the way, he meets Mathilde’s snarky daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas) and embarks on a heated, yet ultimately good-humored little rivalry with the tenants. As the matter progresses, however, personal tensions boil over and secrets interlocking with Mathias’ past come to the surface, all leading to a surprisingly dramatic third act for what starts as an airy, if sophisticated, comedy.
If the film feels a bit claustrophobic at times, it’s probably due to director Horovitz’s penchant for small, intimate family dramas, which are certainly better suited for the stage than the big screen. With that being said, he does at least make a valiant effort to expand the film’s visual pallet by taking the audience on regular walking tours of Paris’ vibrant streets. Regardless, it’s clear that Horovitz’s real skill is not in the cinematographic arena, but rather in directing actors. Indeed, Kline delivers one hell of a performance as the tortured, sardonic Mathias. He plays equal parts vulnerable and cocky with the kind of self-assuredness an actor can only gain after decades of painstakingly honing his craft. In addition, Smith gives a crackling, if familiar, performance as the droll matriarch, and Scott Thomas gives the somewhat thin role of Chloé a fierce internal life.
These bright points aside, it must be said that My Old Lady hits every trope of the, shall we say, “serious” school of family drama one typically sees in the dour, ivory-tower theatrics practiced by Horovitz and other members of the Neil Simon academy. There are screamed revelations of dark secrets, hyper-wordy barbed back and forths and, of course, a suicide attempt that all culminate in yet another propagation of what the late David Foster Wallace called the “Great White Narcissist.” Mathias is the boo-boo blueblood inside every well-off playwright: perfectly witty, grimly charming and so born with, as Horovitz writes, “a silver knife in his back.” If only the writer could stop to find a little empathy for the other characters in his orbit rather than using them only as sparring partners to puff him up.
Despite all this, the film must be judged on its own merits, and with that in mind, My Old Lady is largely a success. Good acting, good dialogue and good pacing all around. Now if only the writer could have stopped to find a little empathy for the other characters circulating the orbit of his semi-autobiographic GWN rather than using them only as sparring partners to puff up his wounded, yet all consuming masculinity.
My Old Lady
Cohen Media Group
Currently in select theaters.
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