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Seventy-five isn’t too old to make a filmmaking debut, judging from My Old Lady, the first feature by veteran playwright Israel Horovitz. Having written the occasional screenplay over his long career (1982’s Author! Author!) and fathered a handful of creatives including Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys and film producer Rachael Horovitz, he clearly knows the right people: Not every newbie can recruit actors like Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas. Those names alone would guarantee attention for this Paris-set tale of real estate woes and family secrets. But the picture’s mix of often bitter humor and generation-gap drama is crowd-ready on its own; whatever qualms one might have about the tidy parallels in its characters’ emotional breakthroughs, it should be warmly greeted by grown-up moviegoers seeking adult but not overly weighty material.
Kline plays Mathias, a New Yorker who has reached middle age with nothing to show for it but three divorces — one for each of his unpublished novels. He believes his luck has changed when his estranged father dies, leaving a vast Parisian apartment behind. (And in Le Marais, no less, with a huge garden out back.) But there’s the catch: The place was sold in a “viager,” a complicated deal meaning Mathias can’t take residence or easily sell the place until its original tenant, Smith’s Mathilde Girard, dies. And until that time, Mathias must make monthly payments to her or forfeit all claims.
Dryly amused by his ignorance of this situation, Girard agrees to let the penniless American stay in a spare room while he works out what to do. There he’s treated like an occupying army by Chloe (Thomas), Girard’s mousy, mean daughter, who correctly assumes he’s willing to make a fast buck by selling her ancestral home to condo developers. Put on the defensive, Mathias quickly uncovers her own misdeeds, puncturing her self-righteousness in a way Thomas handles with remarkable grace.
If this antagonism sounds like the makings of movie romance, the script will soon offer more signs that these two lonely people are kindred spirits. Though Mathias had never heard of Girard, she knows an awful lot about the family of the man who bought her house and continued to visit Paris for decades; the secrets she knows send him off on a bender that makes him no more pleasant to be around than Chloe has been. Does it need to be noted that Smith is masterful not only in matter-of-factly revealing these secrets but in exposing the old lady’s slow-to-crumble layers of self-deception?
Throughout, though, Kline remains a pleasure to watch, surviving the character’s deepening self-pity and making his suspiciously unwriterly carelessness with words (he refers to the trophy head of a wild boar as a “cow”) almost charming. On the page, Mathias’s father issues have specificity but are dully familiar; Kline can’t make us believe we haven’t heard these complaints of neglect many times before, but he makes us take them to heart all the same.
In a rhythm that surely felt less forced in the stage play he’s adapting here, Horovitz gives each character one good soul-baring outburst before allowing them to move on together. That resolution may be crowd-pleasing, but comes too easily given the decades of emotional weight behind it. Helping us swallow it are production values that match the romantic setting, making us marvel that even a mercenary Yank could dream of selling this place off to be replaced by a glass tower.
Production company: Deux Chevaux Inc.
Cast: Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dominique Pinon
Director-Screenwriter: Israel Horovitz
Producers: Rachael Horovitz, Gary Foster, Nitsa Benchetrit, David C. Barrot
Executive producers: Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Charles S. Cohen, Daniel Battsek, Mike Goodridge, Israel Horovitz, Raphaël Benoliel, Russ Krasnoff
Director of photography: Michel Amathieu
Production designer: Pierre-Francois Limbosch
Costume designer: Jacqueline Bouchard
Editors: Jacob Craycroft, Stephanie Ahn
Music: Mark Orton
Rated PG-13, 106 minutes
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