By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- My Old Lady sure sounds like a comedy.
Temporarily homeless Mathias Gold, a failed American writer played by Kevin Kline, inherits an apartment in Paris from his estranged father only to find that elderly Madame Mathilde Girard, played by Maggie Smith, and her protective and hostile daughter, Chloe, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, are living in it and, according to French real estate laws, don't have to vacate the premises.
It's comedic cross-cultural conflict during which hearty laughs ensue, right?
That's because playwright Israel Horovitz, making his feature-film writing/directing debut (as a septuagenarian) with this adaptation of his own stage play, is hunting other game.
The premise of My Old Lady hinges on a French housing law controlling what are called viagers, reverse annuity contracts stipulating that the buyer not only cannot evict the inhabitant but, instead of paying a large lump sum, agrees to pay the seller/occupant a monthly fee until said seller/occupant dies.
So the buyer is gambling on the tenant not living much longer.
And that's what the neglectful father of ne'er-do-well, self-pitying, thrice-divorced New Yorker Gold -- whom Mathias blames for at least his current predicament as well as two other tiny items: his childhood and his adulthood -- agreed to forty years ago.
So now, Madame Mathilde, who is approaching her 90th birthday, and daughter Chloe can go on living there and collecting monthly money from Mathias, who has inherited that debt from his late father, one he must pay until Madame Mathilde passes away.
The problem for Mathias is that Madame Mathilde's doctor, whom he looks in on as soon as he comes to understand his situation, claims that Madame Mathilde is going strong and might live for several more decades, let alone years.
So Mathias and Madame Mathidle come to an agreement about sharing the large apartment despite its single bathroom, at least until Mathias can sell the apartment to an aggressive real estate dealer (Dominique Pinon) –- a potentiality that Chloe rightly suspects and vociferously resents.
Oh, and Mathias has also begun selling off their furniture and belongings piece by piece behind their backs so he has some money to work with -– and to pay what he owes.
There are numerous other surprise revelations, unveiled truths, and domestic connections to come in Horovitz's narrative as he swerves away from what feels at first like farce and heads in the direction of intense melodrama as he examines problematic family relationships resulting from damaging parental decisions and self-serving behaviors.
With two Oscar winners (Kline for A Fish Called Wanda, Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and California Suite) and one Oscar nominee (Thomas for The English Patient) on display, Horovitz's virtual three-hander is in six pretty skilled hands.
But the performers are defeated by the combination of a stage-bound script and Horovitz's directorial inexperience. His screenplay never quite reconciles the blend of dark humor and intergenerational melodrama, resulting in a parade of reveals that neither surprise nor satisfy us because they only vaguely resemble real life as lived.
And although Smith and Thomas inhabit their supporting roles about as expected, Kline, a reliably watchable actor in the film's largest and showiest role, must resort to mugging and speechifying and soliloquizing, all of which add to the piece's artificiality.
In other words, Smith and Thomas say less but deliver more, while Kline does just the opposite.
So we'll evict 2 stars out of 4. In this strained, dialogue-heavy translation from stage to screen, it's mostly the uneasy commute between comedy and drama that keeps us locked out of the apartment: My Old Lady arranges for real estate wrinkles to move in with family secrets, but they just don't end up making for ideal roommates.
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