Kevin Kline is a failed American writer, broke and in Paris to collect his inheritance — an ancient two-story apartment with an accompanying garden in the center city Marais district.
Maggie Smith is the 90something little old Englishwoman living in it.
And Kristin Scott Thomas is the little old Englishwoman’s irritable, unmarried daughter who is determined that Mom won’t be moving anywhere, not any time soon.
Those are the makings of “My Old Lady,” a comedy of troubled family histories, Franco-American culture clashes and arcane real estate law.
Because that’s the heart of the thing, this French concept of “viager.” Madame Girard (Smith) is grandmothered into this apartment, which Jim Gold (Kline) inherited from a father he hadn’t seen in decades. He shows up to check out and sell this property for some much-needed cash, and there she is — immovable because of this “viager.” He owns the property, but only after she dies. The reverse annuity contract means that he has to pay rent to her, as well. It’s all in his dad’s will.
“I own this apartment,” Jim, whom Madame Girard insists on calling “Mathias,” mutters. “And I own…you?”
Jim was born in Paris and left when his parents split up. Now Jim is 57, penniless and with a property he can do nothing with. Until she dies. What’s more, she insists on getting her rent. That’s a nice watch there, Mathias.
“You’re a pirate, Madame Girard!”
Jim enlists a real estate agent (Dominique Pinon of “Delicatessen”) to explain viager contracts to him. Ever the greedy, impatient and yet practical American, he starts spiriting away furniture and such from the many unused rooms in the apartment, selling it to antique dealers for a little pocket money.
Meanwhile, the precise Madame Girard, a semi-retired English teacher who holds English conversation salons with a chef, a doctor and others who barter for her lessons, reveals a little of her story. She knew Jim’s father. WELL. And while she doesn’t know the details of the rift, she would like to hear it.
“How do you get to be 57 and 11 months and have so little to show for it?”
Then, there’s her daughter, Chloe (Scott Thomas). She’s easily rattled, a tad highly-strung and furious at this gauche American’s intrusion into their lives. She knows the law and isn’t above enforcing it. All Jim can do is scheme and sneak about, questioning Madame Girard’s doctor about her health, plotting a sale of this onerus contract to any wily Frenchman with more patience and the deeper resources it takes to wait the old lady out.
Even her toasts at dinner — served “Pre-CISE-ly at 8!” — have a taunting tone to them.
“To good health! And LONG LIFE!”
Veteran playwright Israel Horovitz (“Author! Author!”) adapted his play and directed this film of it, a theatrical movie that benefits from an immensely engaging and accomplished (two Oscar winners) cast. It’s a comedy of confessional monologues and overheard conversations, quite stagey at times.
But Smith and Kline and Scott Thomas give this a chance to sparkle. Kline dresses down wonderfully, and his offhand way with the “Franglais” dialogue beautifully clashes with Smith’s English precision.
“SPARE me the fromage!”
And Scott Thomas, as cutting in French as she is in English, makes a wonderfully spare sparring partner, vulnerable and wholly capable of lashing out.
“My Old Lady” gets tangled in its own feet in the third act as Horovitz tries to invest mystery where there is none and ratchets up the melodramatic connections between these three. But the venerable acting firm of Smith-Kline & Scott Thomas make certain that this Paris trip is anything but a waste.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual references
Cast: Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dominique Pinon
Credits: Written and directed by Israel Horovitz, based on his play.
Running time: 1:44
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