At a glance, My Old Lady seems like it should tread the well-worn territory of a charming European comedy of manners. Listen to this logline: Kevin Kline is Mathais, a thrice-divorced New Yorker at the end of his rope who comes to Paris to claim the apartment his father left him in his will. He finds the place still occupied by the imperious Mathilde (Maggie Smith) and her grumpy daughter Chloe (Kristen Scott Thomas) and realizes it’s a “viager,” a Parisian housing set-up where one pays a resident a monthly fee and gets the house from them when they die.
Mathais is a major grouch and Mathilde likes to live her life just so, but one figures the two will learn much from each other and have a witty and invigorating relationship that merges the past and the present, all while exploring the beautiful alleys of the Marais in Paris and maybe getting to know Chloe a little better. And in a way, that’s what happens in this dark, phlegmatic, often abrasive adaptation, written and directed by Israel Horovitz from his own 2002 play. But My Old Lady is more interested in plumbing the secret depths of Mathilde’s past and her connection to Mathais, which should be pretty obvious from hints dropped right in their first meeting, but slowly unfold over the next 100 minutes.
Horovitz is a prolific playwright and has dabbled in film over the years but this is his directorial debut, and he’s assembled quite the fine cast for it. He does his best to open the action out to Paris as much as possible to keep things from feeling stagebound, but this is a movie set in a (colossal, gloomy, antique furniture-filled) apartment and it feels like it. But the real problem is not the dusty setting; it’s that the entire film seems given over to Kline’s character spitting venom all over everyone else.
Mathais has some reasonable gripes—a distant father, a tragically sad mother, a bunch of divorces and failed careers, serious alcoholism—and being left an apartment he can’t claim until Mathilde dies strikes him as the final insult. Since he arrives literally broke, he starts stealing furniture to support himself and tries to arrange a deal with a slimy real-estate developer who will bulldoze the place once Mathilde expires and build a luxury hotel, leaving Chloe out on the street. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop—for Mathais to reach some understanding that he needs more than money to survive and come over to his “old lady,” but nothing is achieved so easy in Horovitz’s writing, which owes more of a debt to Ibsen or Chekov than genteel culture-clash comedies. Mathais has much to learn, as do Mathilde and Chloe, but it will not be easy for any of them.
I’d praise Horovitz for going the darker route if My Old Lady wasn’t so wrenchingly obvious and Kevin Kline’s character wasn’t so venal and cruel. He does reach some understanding by the end of things, yes, but not before he hasn’t vomited hate onto everyone and demanded apologies for a life ruined by events fleshed out in painstaking, boring detail. Kline rumbles monologue after monologue at us, occasionally swigging from bottles of red wine (yes, spoiler alert, he falls off the wagon) and generally doing about as well as he can do with such an unrelentingly nasty character.
Smith is not called upon to do the shtick she’s excelled at in recent years—the sharp-tongued truth-teller who long ago stopped caring what people thought of her. Her Mathilde is lost in a cloud of fading memories and mostly just parks herself in various chairs, wrapped in blankets, shooting misty looks at Mathais as he skulks around. Kristen Scott Thomas is her usual icy, brilliant self, cracking her emotional shell with a little more subtlety than poor old Kline (it’s not his fault, since most of the talking is left to him).
Given its limited Wednesday release in early September, My Old Lady probably won’t make much of a splash, but if the title, cast and setting has you expecting an easy ride, let me leave you with a final plea to reconsider that. My Old Lady isn’t an entirely worthless affair, but it’s a largely unnecessarily grueling one.