Monday, September 08, 2014

“My Old Lady”–Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “My Old Lady”, a comedy-drama starring Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas and Maggie Smith.


When a man inherits his late father’s Paris apartment, he tries to sell it in order to get some ready cash – but when he learns that an elderly woman and her adult daughter live there, will they be able to prevent him from putting their home on the market?


At nearly 58 years of age, Mathias (Kline) finds he has very little to show for his years on this earth.  Having been married and divorced multiple times and suddenly finding himself nearly penniless, he believes he may have been posthumously saved by his late father; inheriting a Paris-based apartment his father owned, Mathias heads to France from his home in New York City to sell the place and pocket the much-needed infusion of finances.  Upon arrival, Mathias explores the expansive flat and happens to stumble upon Mathilde (Smith), an elderly woman who maintains that she lives there along with her daughter Chloé (Scott Thomas). 

These two women aren’t the only surprises awaiting Mathias.  It turns out that his father purchased the apartment from Mathilde through a special type of real estate transaction common in France known as a viager; under such an arrangement, the seller is permitted to collect monthly payments from the buyer over a period of time – all the while, the seller is permitted to continue living in the residence until either moving or dying, at which point the buyer may pay off the balance of the dwelling prior to occupying the space.  Given that Mathilde is in her nineties, Mathias is confident that he won’t have to wait too long before the place is his; as a result, he starts the ball rolling to secure a buyer.

Panicking, Chloé tries to implore Mathias not to sell the place, since it would leave her homeless; Mathias rejects her pleas and a bitter fight between them ensues.  With Mathias forced to share the space with these women until a deal can be struck, some long-hidden secrets about both Mathilde and Mathias eventually surface – revealing a past that each wish the other never discovered.  When Mathilde discloses to Mathias that she may have had a relationship with his father that was something other than strictly business, the question arises whether he and Chloé may be half-siblings.  Knowing the truth, will Mathias nevertheless proceed with selling the women’s living quarters?     


Writer-director Israel Horovitz, better known as a playwright, makes his cinematic directorial debut with the film “My Old Lady”, which is an adaptation of his own play of the same name.  Given Horovitz’s extensive and impressive track record, it’s no wonder he was able to assemble such a superior cast, each of whom give fine performances.  Unfortunately, the material is not up to the cast and as a result, the motion picture as a whole suffers from trite dramatic conceits and contrivances that are painfully obvious (e.g., Is it really possible to hold a conversation while playing the piano?  When sharing an apartment with other people, wouldn’t it dawn on you to knock on a closed bathroom door before entering?).

Although the adaptation of the play is successful in its attempt to make it more filmic – the scenes are considerably opened up to show off the streets and architecture of The City Of Lights to their best advantage – Horovitz seems to have a tendency to fall back on convenient theatrical tropes intended to drive the momentum of the story forward.  These techniques only have the impact of being overtly manipulative.  When the screenwriter resorts to tricks in an effort to fool the audience, one has to question if he truly has faith in his own material. 

While there are moments throughout “My Old Lady” which intend to be amusing (and occasionally succeeding), it might be something of a stretch to consider this to be in the comedy-drama genre due to the fact that the serious moments are so dismally dark that it can be difficult to bounce back from them too quickly.  Additionally, the language of the script remains far too theatrical; even though Horovitz may have succeeded in taking the story outside of the constraints of the apartment setting, the dialog still has very much the feel of belonging in a stage play. 


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