There’s not much wrong with My Old Lady that can’t be solved by letting the story play out on a stage and scrapping the idea of making it a film altogether. Such criticism makes sense when you realize that, at age 75, My Old Lady finds theatrical director, writer, and screenwriter Israel Horovitz directing his first motion picture, and he’s working from his own material. Of Horovitz’s plays, it probably makes the most sense to adapt this one to the screen, given its somewhat opulent and slightly decaying Parisian setting, but it still feels tonally and aesthetically something that probably shouldn’t have left the stage in the first place.
Matthias “Jim” Gold (Kevin Kline) has managed to maintain his thrice divorced slacker lifestyle now into his late 50s, and he travels from New York to France to ostensibly take old of an inherited and highly valuable apartment that functions as almost all of his inheritance. When he arrives, he finds out that not only is the apartment occupied by a 92 year old woman (Maggie Smith), but that she lives there under a curious loophole in French tenancy law that required Mattias’ father to pay the tenant 2,400 Euros a month to keep the property. Broke and unable to return to the US because he hitched everything he had to flipping the property, Matthias has to find a way to get this sweet, uppity, and cunning old woman out of the house for good. Or just wait till she eventually dies.
It’s clear that the play was written almost exclusively to deal with three main characters: Gold, the woman, and the woman’s shrill, almost constantly hysterical daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas). It doesn’t particularly seem to care that nothing about the film feels particularly French outside of the locations because Horovitz comes from a theatrical background that suggests such things never really matter when presented to a paying audience that came mostly wanting to watch dynamic personalities and somehow expects little else. It’s a comedy of manners and errors that never feels all that original even at its strongest, and every scene that involves personalities outside the house are fleeting and feel awkwardly and obviously like filler that’s designed to beef up the material to make it look more cinematic than it is.
Horovitz also definitely has the theatrical writer/director’s desire to never deviate from the script and to stick to his own vision, which despite some nice moments leads to something a bit uneven among the cast. It plays like watching a preview performance of a stage show instead of something that’s been rehearsed to a greater degree and honed to a point that works. Kline and Smith have great chemistry with each other, and they’re both admittedly exceptional actors that could probably tap dance with sewing machines strapped to their backs. The film’s best moments are every seemingly inconsequential conversation that the duo has because it’s an unforced and thoughtful way for the actors to show how neither characters is particularly likable or virtuous while underlining that they’re probably cut from the same cloth. Kline and Smith never try to emeblish their characters to give them a false sense of sainthood, and they’re both compulsively watchable even when the film (which outside of production design, doesn’t look all that great) is at its most static and staid.
I wish I could say the same thing about Kristin Scott Thomas, though, as she’s clearly the weakest link in the film, even more so than Horovitz’s novice directorial abilities. It might be the way the character is written or Horovitz purposefully telling her to go big with her performance, but every time she appears on screen the film grinds to a halt. Kline and Smith are powerless to reign her in, too, since everything Thomas does in the film is shouted in a pissed off Chicken Little styled cadence. It’s not villainous or virtuous, it’s just off putting.
Even with the criticisms, though, My Old Lady might just be too slight overall to slag too much. It’s entirely harmless fluff that will probably go over just fine on a Sunday afternoon showing on PBS. There are a few amusing moments, and Kline and Smith are a magical team. I just wonder how much would have changed had Horovitz decided to direct someone else’s material or if he hadn’t waited so long in becoming a filmmaker.