My Old Lady Worthwhile Despite its Flaws

MY OLD LADY (2014)
Directed by Israel Horovitz
BBC Films, PG-13, 107 minutes
 * * *

The British film My Old Lady didn't do much at the box office in either Britain or North America. It's easy to understand why, as it's a film for older audiences that stars Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline, and Kristin Scott Thomas—all of whom are decades past their A-list days. It's also a slight film with a terrible title and a miscast lead (Smith). Despite numerous flaws, though, it's a better film than its dismissive reviews would have you believe and is worth watching on a night lacking better options.

The set up is that Mathias Gold (Kline) is an aging American sad sack. He's not a loser per se; just one of those guys who suffers from perpetual bad luck the way someone with stomach ulcers has constant heartburn. He sells his New York City apartment and liquidates his scant resources to head off to Paris to take possession of an apartment left to him by his estranged (and emotionally absent) father. It's spacious, has a nice garden, and is located in a highly desirable part of the Marais district—the sort of place one can offload overnight for millions of Euros. That's exactly the plan—until Mathias arrives and finds that it's occupied by a 90-year-old woman, Mathilde Girard (Smith), and her middle-aged daughter, Chloé (Scott Thomas). When Mathias gives them notice, he receives his father's final blow: the apartment isn't technically his, nor was it entirely his father's to grant. It is covered by a viager, a French law that not only grants Mathilde life occupancy, but which also requires the apartment's deed holder—now Mathias—to pay her a 2400 Euros per month stipend! Even worse, as Mathias learns, the apartment came to his father through Mathilde, who was his mistress all the time his mother was alive and after the death of Mathilde's husband. Well that certainly explains why he spent so much time in Paris! It also complicates his reactions to Chloé, who might actually be his sister.

From here we have a pretty standard farce with all the usual predicaments. Can Mathias disencumber himself of his wanted tenants? Where is he going to get 2,400 Euros per month until he figures it out? What would he go back to even if he had the cash? He and Chloé hate each other, or do they? How does either of them deal with the hurt over the neglect they suffered due to their parents' past freewheeling, bohemian lifestyle that left little room for affection for children? And so on.

You could probably write the script Horovitz directed for the simple reason that you've seen it before. For all of that, the film is diverting and fun because both Kline and Scott Thomas make it so. They play wounded older children well, especially as they grapple with the ways in which they have revisited the sins of their parents. It helps that Kristin Scott Thomas is fully bilingual and capable of playing a character caught between worlds on numerous levels. Kline, who has always had a flair for comedy, is also strong as a Yank bumbling his way across Paris and trying to make sense of French language and bureaucracy—neither of which he has a prayer of mastering. The weak link, surprisingly, is Maggie Smith. She's the right age and though we get a rather obviously contrived throwaway line about how she was born in England (No kidding!), for someone who has allegedly lived in Paris for much of her life, she's about as French as a toaster muffin is English. Good for Mags that she keeps getting parts at age 80, but as talented as she is, she's worn out the role of crotchety dames like Downton Abbey's Violet Crawley. We no longer see the character; we see Maggie Smith playing that character. Moreover, the role in My Old Lady demands an actress that exudes more cultural sophistication than she provides, and it really should have gone to an older French actress such as Emmanuelle Riva, Claudia Cardinale (who is French, not Italian), or maybe even Jeanne Moreau. If you must cast an English woman, how about someone with allure more in keeping with the character's hippie-like past, such as Julie Christie (who, shockingly, is now 75)? And for heaven's sake lose the patronizing title and rename the film. Viager? The Arrangement? Living with Sins? Anything else!

Even with a better title and casting this would be little more than a frothy romp, but such films have their place. So does this one. I fully anticipated I'd hate this movie and switch it off after 20 minutes. I didn't. Some nights all you need is a hundred minutes of non-taxing diversion.
Rob Weir


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