Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Stars: Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas
Director: Israel Horovitz
At age 75, American playwright Israel Horovitz brings us his feature directorial debut in My Old Lady, proving it's never too late to try something new. The film has a somewhat theatrical (i.e. claustrophobic) feel and a couple of subplots that tax credulity, but overall Horovitz has produced a thoroughly original cinematic tale — despite having based the movie on his 2002 play of the same name. Plus how can you go wrong with this casting trifecta? Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas have three Oscars and five other Oscar nominations among them.
Kline plays Mathias Gold, a middle-aged, failed New York writer (and recovering alcoholic) who heads to Paris to start over in the wake of his third divorce.
Helping him do that is the inheritance he's just received from his bitterly estranged father: a large apartment in the chic Marais district, replete with garden — and, it turns out, two residents: a 90-year-old Englishwoman, Madame Mathilde Girard (Smith), and her dowdy 50-something daughter, Chloe (Thomas), who's involved with a married man.
It was Madame Girard, we discover, who sold the place to the senior Mr. Gold in the first place. But she did so under a scheme in which the buyer pays the seller only a small down payment, followed by monthly installments until the seller — who is permitted to remain in the property — dies. (In other words, the buyer places a bet on the seller's imminent demise.)
And why should Mathias care about this arrangement? Because it means he can't cash in on his windfall. Not only that, but technically he owes Madame Girard those continuing monthly fees.
Having imparted this unsettling news to Mathias, the elegant nonagenarian (she dines promptly at 8, with good wine in crystal goblets) bluntly asks him, "How do you get to be 57 and have so little to show for it?" But then she relents: You may stay in my spare bedroom, she decrees, until you decide what to do next.
Emphatically less tolerant is daughter Chloe, who resolves to expel this interloper from their lives (the conniving Mathias is not above blackmail). Her protests foreshadow chemistry between the two. And while Chloe is out of the apartment each day teaching English, Mathias learns more about another relationship: Madame's interactions with his father, it would seem, went far deeper than mere real estate dealings.
At unveiling family secrets, My Old Lady is occasionally overly dramatic. As a study of dysfunctional families and clashing cultures, by contrast, the film is funny and fresh, and Maggie Smith gives the standout performance of her storied career. The minor characters are appropriately droll, especially the real estate agent played by Dominique Pinon (from Amélie) and Madame Girard's doctor, played by French writer-director Noémie Lvovsky. Topping things off, the apartment interiors and Paris cityscapes will stun even the most reluctant Francophile.
My Old Lady may be technically imperfect, and its intergenerational themes are unlikely to attract hordes of texting teens. But by creating a cliché-free zone to address thorny, real-life issues, this is one Old Lady you'll want to include in your own family.
Meg Grant is West Coast editor of AARP The Magazine.
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