Mathias (Kevin Kline) is a failure. He’s three times divorced, and not coincidentally, has written three unpublished novels. But the passing of his father —who has otherwise given away all his money to charity— has opened to the door to potential prosperity. Mathias’ father has left him the keys to a beautiful Parisian apartment, but there’s just one problem: the 90 year old Mathilde (Maggie Smith) has lived there for seventy years and has no plans to leave. Nor does she have a legal obligation to. She’s living there under a viager, a contract in which the buyer agrees to pay the seller of the home a lump sum on a regular basis (the amount depends on the value of the home and age of the seller) until the seller passes away, and then ownership is transferred to the buyer. This works out great for the buyer if the seller dies earlier than expected, but if not, you might just get caught in a similar situation as Mathias.
Freshly arrived from New York City, he’s based his future plans on this apartment. Broke, with no plane ticket home and nowhere to stay, Matthias had hoped to sell the house and then start figuring out the next step in his life. But now he’s stuck. Mathilde is kind enough to allow Matthias to stay until he sorts himself out, and even invites him to join her for her prompt evening dinners. However, under the laws of the viager, the obligations of the contract passes to the next of kin, and Mathias learns he will have to pay Mathilde 2,400 euros per month. With just the few clothes he arrived with and barely a penny to his name, Mathias must find a way to earn some cash, and must find someone else take over his viager. But with Mathilde’s protective and prickly daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas) also in the mix, finding a solution that makes everyone happy won’t be easy.
And it’s not just the apartment at stake. It might seem a bit strange for Mathilde to accept this random American stranger into her home, but bubbling beneath the surface are more things yet to be uncovered by Mathias about his estranged father. And holding the key is Mathilde, whose history with the apartment encompasses much more than the time she has spent there. Meanwhile, Chloé’s life seems to echo Matthias’ own, as she engages in a messy affair with a married man, all while she too begins to wonder about her past. And so, with the apartment in the middle, the trio soon learns that the connections between them go beyond a piece of paper.
Written and directed by Israel Horovitz (making his feature film debut) and based his own play “My Old Lady,” he opens up the story from the stage just enough to keep it cinematic, while also being careful to maintain the narrative focus on his three leads. That might not seem like much, but for a movie that’s mostly set in one location, it’s crucial that it never feels claustrophobic. But we only wish that craft and consideration would’ve been applied to the script itself. Having not seen the play, it’s probably a safe bet that nuance was lost in translation. Nearly every cliché you can think of gets trotted out with bells on — drunken confessions, overheard conversations, and reveals upon reveals (which are never all that surprising to begin with), attempting to keep the intrigue going, all delivered at a pitch that’s borderline hysterical. “My Old Lady” drives toward a third act reveal which is supposed to swing with a big dramatic punch, but because it’s fairly obvious (any hint would make it clear), it never lands with the necessary impact.
But this is also partially due to the wobby tone of the movie, which can never quite reconcile its jauntier moments —particularly when Mathieu meets with his real estate agent Monsieur Lefebvre (Dominique Pinon)— with its more serious passages. Rather than gradually finding a balance between drama and comedy, “My Old Lady” flops uncomfortably between the two, which is too bad as the cast puts in some good work. Kline perfectly captures the energy of a run down, embittered, sour and desperate man at the end of his rope, while also finding just enough relatability to make him likeable in his own rough and tumble way. Kline goes toe-to-toe with Maggie Smith, portraying a character carrying so much baggage that she has gone past any guilt she might be carrying to just delivering the truth, even as difficult as it is for those around her to hear it. And playing her loyal daughter, Thomas’ character is one whose world arguably gets shaken up the most.
And while that all may sound tantalizing or intriguing, “My Old Lady” unfortunately never picks up the momentum required from a movie that spends most of its time swirling around three characters. Indeed, with little else to go narratively, the film falls into an uneasy pattern of bickering, leading to revelations, leading to more bickering. And though Horovitz’s directing is workmanlike, and while the movie has a certain charm that makes it easy to walk in the door, it gives you little reason to stay. [C]