Good banter, scenery saves stodgy ‘Lady’

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Wednesday, September 17, 2014 11:35am
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Most of “My Old Lady” is set in the kind of apartment you have dreams about after eating camembert late in the evening: old, rambling, with a garden view through big upper-floor windows in the back. And oh yes, it’s in Paris.

The film is based on a play by Israel Horovitz, and no wonder Horovitz (making his feature-film directing debut — at age 75) chose not to open up the stage work; that’s one great pad.

There are shots of characters strolling along the Seine to Mark Orton’s wistful accordion music, but mostly we’re indoors. The apartment is at the heart of the story, anyway.

A failed-at-everything 57-year-old blowhard named Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) has arrived in Paris without a penny to his name. It’s all right, though, because he’s there to take ownership of the apartment his much-reviled father bequeathed to him.

Problem: The place was purchased, some 40 years earlier, in the French contract called viager, which means the seller gets to live in it until she dies, as the buyer pays a monthly stipend in the interim. And she — in this case 92-year-old Madame Girard (Maggie Smith) — is still very alertly alive.

So is her daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), and so are various ghosts from the past, many of which come staggering to life as Mathias moves into an empty room and schemes a way to undercut these entrenched ladies.

Horovitz makes feints in the direction of comedy early on, but despite Kevin Kline’s long track record in that arena these are among the film’s least successful moments. (It’s always fun to hear this master of sarcasm get loose and begin putting quotation marks around his most pointed phrases, however.)

Halfway through, the stakes get more serious, the behavior grittier, and the performers — especially Smith, who gets to act instead of relying on her tricks — pick up their game.

Another plus is the absence of something shoehorned in for a younger demographic. The people on screen have lived lives, and Horovitz doesn’t care that nobody on screen is under 55.

Is this enough to salvage the proceedings? Not quite — the pace is rocky, and everybody speaks as though they’re in a play. This is partially mitigated by the fact that if you’re going to have people running off at the mouth, you could to worse that this hyper-eloquent trio.

“My Old Lady” 2 1/2 stars

Sourpuss Kevin Kline inherits a Paris apartment, only to find a former owner (Maggie Smith) who can’t be legally evicted. Playwright Israel Horovitz directs this stagey situation, which has rocky moments but actually gets better and more serious as it goes along. Kristin Scott Thomas rounds out the fine cast.

Rating: PG-13, for language, subject matter

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Sundance Cinemas

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