My Old Lady
Where There’s a Will There’s a Nay
Starring: Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith
Review written by Robert D. Patrick
Isreal Horovitz, the writer and director of My Old Lady, creates a color wheel of incendiary black humor and repressed ire in his opus about a rascally opportunist named Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline). Adapted from the stage play of the same name, Horovitz’s picture lampoons honesty in favor of expedience.
Despondent and impoverished, Mathias, an American man whose disapproving father has just died, travels to Paris to retrieve what was left to him by his family’s late patriarch – a valuable apartment. With only two nickels to rub together, Mathias plans to sell the property in order to line his pockets with currency. The problem is that there is a tenant, living in the building, that refuses to move. Mathilde (Maggie Smith), the woman in question, operates under a seemingly obtuse French law that says she can stay in the apartment for as long as she pleases. Her daughter, Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), is also living under the same roof, and is furious at the sudden presence of Mathias. Here, many directors would opt for the obligatory odd couple formula, complete with banana peels and rampant miscommunication. Instead, teeth baring quarrels and irascible misgivings are cavalierly dealt to the audience. My Old Lady is more fiery, irate, and sullen than it is humorous (though it does have its moments of dry wit).
Mathias is an affable slimeball with a paper mache heart, an antihero with a glint in his glazed eyes. With his pebbly charm, he could be an estranged, grime-encrusted Wes Anderson character from a bizzaro universe. Kline nails every booze inundated note. Any other actor, if given the same part, would come across as a crusty old sleaze – for this role, you need a very specific barbed and cartoonish likability. Kline is a great physical actor, and his comedic gait shows when he skulks around corners in a furtive curiosity, or lumbers about, enveloped in a dusty blanket. All these years later, he still has the impressive bat speed that we saw in his earlier films, such as A Fish Called Wanda.
Sadly, the film’s early levity eventually give way to fist-clenching drama. Eyes become logged with tears and sad mewls are heard through pillows. The tone is inconsistent, to be sure, but the drunken tightrope walk of melancholy indulgence and bruised humor somehow works – for the most part. The long, weepy expositions seem to be half-whittled, but they still don’t weigh down the boat too often.
And while Kline excels, the thespians around him aren’t required to do much. Kristin Scott Thomas boils, selfishly, with her arms crossed and her speech petulant. The character requires that she live in a stern, terse shell. Thomas does this well, to her credit, but it’s a role that simply exists for Kline. The same can be said of the great Maggie Smith, whose dreary and minimalist performance only serves as a canvas for Kline to fleck his emotions against.
Mathias has the empathy of a cutlass and the jarring bedside manner of a garish horn blow, but Kline brings a palpable, and beastly, fun to the desperate opportunist, which makes Horovitz’s film – now playing at Landmark’s La Jolla Village Cinemas – worth a watch.