It’s pretty easy to look at box-office earnings and bemoan a lack of craft and originality. There are plenty of sequels, prequels, reboots and brainless CGI flicks to fill up multiplex rosters, especially in the wake of the summer season.
That’s what makes “My Old Lady” a refreshing option. This is a movie about character, story and performance. If you want to have a moving experience in a film, here’s a nice opportunity.
“My Old Lady” is set in modern-day Paris and built around three characters. The protagonist, Mathias (Kevin Kline), has just inherited an expensive Parisian apartment, and has arrived on the continent broke and directionless to collect his due. Unfortunately, he finds a 92-year-old woman named Mathilde (Maggie Smith) living there with her abrasive daughter, Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Mathilde is the beneficiary of a local policy that entitles her to stay in the apartment until her death, and as an added insult, Mathias is obligated to pay her a steep monthly stipend until she bites the big one.
Based on the way this information is presented early on (and judging by its rather misleading trailer), you might assume “My Old Lady” is a charming romantic comedy that will inevitably bring Mathias and Chloé together by the final credits. This assumption would be deeply flawed. There is plenty of humor and charm throughout “My Old Lady,” but there is also great pain and depth, especially as the characters’ initial conflict grows more and more complex.
As Mathias begins to explore his options for selling the apartment, he continually butts heads with Chloé and discovers that she and her mother are more than coincidental tenants. As the truth comes out and mutual histories are revealed, Mathias is forced to confront more than his personal failings in life.
As good as his supporting cast may be, “My Old Lady” is truly Kline’s moment to shine, and it would be a surprise if he didn’t get some sort of award recognition at the end of the year. Mathias is a fascinating lout, a miserable loner and devious conniver who still manages to win sympathy for his awful plight. He can make you laugh in one beat and horrify you with the next.
Smith and Scott Thomas are also impressive, and it certainly helps Mathias’ cause when you begin to understand that their characters are at least as flawed as he is. There are moments of deep despair and darkness in “My Old Lady,” but for all their weaknesses, the cast has delivered a trio of very human characters.
Israel Horovitz wrote and directed “My Old Lady,” adapting it from his own stage play. It’s very easy to imagine the story on stage, but the transition to film maintains a powerful degree of intimacy. It’s a difficult movie to watch at times, but if you appreciate good writing and especially acting, this one is well worth your time.
“My Old Lady” is rated PG-13 for some vulgarity and profanity.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.