Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: "My Old Lady"

Kevin Kline is in fine, fine form in “My Old Lady,” a movie that is not about his character’s wife. In it he plays a middle-aged man with a squandered life who finds that the incredibly valuable Parisian apartment he has inherited comes with a catch: the 92-year-old woman who already lives there, and isn’t about to leave.

She’s played by Maggie Smith, no slouch herself.

It seems Mathias Gold’s estranged father purchased the lovely chateau-sized place from Mathilde Girard more than 40 years ago under a “viager” arrangement. This especially French concoction involves selling a home at a low price, often to an elderly person, with the agreement that the seller will continue to live there, indefinitely. The buyer only gets the place when the seller dies.

Mathias, a failed writer, has little to show for himself other than two divorces and the clothes on this back. He used his last penny to fly to Paris to arrange the sale of his the apartment, which his hated father left him (unaccompanied by any funds, which went to charity).

Looking at a payday of millions of euros, he’s none too pleased to find Mathilde living there. A retired British teacher with an elegant if snippy personality, Mathilde has the legal right to stay – and even charge Mathias rent while he’s there!

(I feel compelled to point out that though the characters are supposed to be decades apart in age, Kline and Smith are actually only divided by 12 years -- yet another example of sexist showbiz ageism. Though both thespians have been blessed with stubbornly unchanged looks. And Smith had already been in the old biddy business for quite some time: she played a centenarian in “Hook” 23 years ago!)

Thus begins a sly contest of wills, as these two cagey warriors battle to outlast each other. To pass the time Mathias sells off some furniture for pocket money, gets advice from a real estate agent (Dominique Pinon), lines up a potential buyer and begins to take an interest in Mathilde’s daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), who also lives at the apartment and is more openly antagonistic than her mother.

Kline has always been one of the unlikeliest movie stars, a cards-down actor who always gives the sense of an internal complexity at work, only a peek of which he’s showing us at any given time. That’s especially true with the wily Mathias, who is presented as a loathsome opportunist, and yet is winningly charismatic and droll.

Writer/director Israel Horowitz, who adapted his own stage play, manages to craft a movie about a trio of characters, all of whom are deeply flawed in some way, and yet make the audience care deeply about them. Just when we might feel ready to judge them for some past action, new information comes along that makes those dark deeds, if not justifiable, then at least relatable.

Filled to the brim with smart, snappy dialogue and engaging characters, “My Old Lady” is one of those movies that keeps revealing new layers to itself. I certainly hope Kline’s turn, one of the best of his career, is remembered come Oscar nomination time.

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