Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith try to save problematic 'My Old Lady'

  • Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) is shocked to find out that he has to pay Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) to live in a Paris apartment bequeathed to him by his father in "My Old Lady."

    Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) is shocked to find out that he has to pay Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) to live in a Paris apartment bequeathed to him by his father in "My Old Lady."

By Stephanie Merry
The Washington Post
Posted9/19/2014 5:45 AM

Israel Horovitz proves it's never too late to learn a new skill. At 75, the prolific playwright has directed his first feature film, an adaptation of his play "My Old Lady." Unfortunately, it's a problematic play that's just as flawed on screen, although some excellent performances from Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith help make up for the script's shortcomings.

Kline plays Mathias Gold, an aging alcoholic with very little to show for his 50-odd years beyond three failed marriages and three unpublished novels. He uses the last of his meager savings to book a plane ticket to Paris to see the apartment his late father bequeathed to him. You can practically see the dollar signs floating in Mathias's eyes as he walks in.


The apartment is in Le Marais, and it's huge with a lush back garden. Mathias -- who really prefers to be called Jim -- is already imagining life as a millionaire when his dream is cut short by the reality of the little old lady living in the place. Mathilde (Smith) informs Mathias that this is a "viager," a French real estate arrangement in which Mathias's father bought the place from Mathilde for a small fee, but she has use of the apartment until she dies. And until then, Mathias must pay her a monthly fee of 2,400 euros.

"Payable to you?" he says incredulously, before ever so casually asking, "How old are you?"

Subtlety is not either character's strong suit, but Mathias is particularly coarse. He ends up striking a deal to stay in the place until he can figure out a way to sell it. In the meantime, he tracks down Mathilde's doctor to see how long she might live (answer: a very long time) and secretly loots the place, selling a few pieces of furniture for pocket change. Mathias is utterly despicable, but in the hands of Kline, the character is a joy to watch.

The story falters with the introduction of Chloe, Mathilde's daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is enraged to find that Mathias is staying in her mother's home, where Chloe also lives. She makes strange, occasionally unbelievable decisions, and comes across more like a tool for Mathias's transformation than a fully formed character.

As is so common in contemporary plays, the story hinges on a big reveal that helps to explain why Mathias is such a lout. Part of the reason -- and this gives nothing away -- is that his father was a deadbeat. In this sense, it turns out Mathias shares quite a bit in common with Chloe, who has her own parental emotional baggage.

Both characters are a mess, which makes the story's tidy resolution feel too easy. That being said, as the emotions begin to run high, Kline's performance is impeccable. For a moment, even after all of Mathias' horrible, shameless behavior, Kline manages to make his character tragic, and the audience might momentarily feel for the guy.

Horovitz may have made a questionable decision in adapting this play for the screen, but his casting was flawless.

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