Kevin Kline and ‘My Old Lady’ smolder but rarely spark

Kevin Kline plays Mathias Gold, who inherits a Paris apartment occupied by an elderly tenant (performed by Maggie Smith) in ‘My Old Lady.’ Photo: Cohen Media Group 

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

In “My Old Lady,” St. Louis native Kevin Kline plays Mathias Gold, a Jewish man from New York who travels to France to claim his inheritance: a luxurious Paris apartment. As it turns out, not only is the apartment occupied by an elegant old woman (Maggie Smith), it also is a “viager” apartment, which means she gets to stay there for life. What’s more, Gold has to pay her a monthly fee for as long as she lives.

This old French real estate law, a kind of reverse mortgage, sets up a comic situation. The French-born, New York-raised Gold is broke and spent the last of his meager funds just to get to Paris, where he plans to sell the expensive Paris apartment and leave quickly. 

A failed playwright in his late 50s and a recovering alcoholic with three ex-wives, Gold is a wounded soul who resents that the apartment, a few books in French and a gold wristwatch are all that his wealthy, estranged father left him.

When he learns his plan for a quick sale is blocked, he is at a loss. Eventually, the “old lady,” whose name is Mathilde Girard, agrees to let him stay in the large apartment he technically owns, but she demands his father’s gold watch as payment of the required fee. 

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Director Israel Horovitz adapted his stage play for this film, which marks the playwright’s directorial debut. Kline is perfect for the role and has the comic chops to make the most of its potential. Cast alongside Smith, who has delighted audiences with her barbed humor on TV’s “Downton Abbey,” we have what look like the perfect adversaries for a battle of wits and wills.

Although the setup is ripe for humor, “My Old Lady” is primarily a drama about family and self-discovery, in which a father sends a message, and a gift of sorts, from beyond the grave. The son, who goes by the name of Jim rather than the one his father gave him, had issues with his emotionally distant old man. 

Frustratingly, although it is plain that Gold’s father was Jewish, the film’s ultimate message – the importance of one’s heritage and family connections in Jewish identity – is not revealed until near the end of the film.

When Gold breezes into the apartment expecting to take possession and quickly move on, it is Kline at his charming, bouncy best. The apartment is more a townhouse, a spacious abode in a nice neighborhood with two stories and a large garden, a valuable rarity in crowded Paris. The 90-year-old Mathilde lets him stay but fails to mention that her daughter Chloe (Kristen Scott Thomas) also shares the apartment.

Smith plays an English-born beauty who married a Frenchman and took part in the social whirl and cultural richness of post-WWII Paris, including some romantic liaisons. The tales don’t match her prim and proper demeanor, which is in part intentional on the writer/director’s part, because breaking down Gold’s expectations is part of the story. 

Many scenes seem tepid at first despite a first-rate cast and the story’s potential. Kline and Smith don’t always connect in their early comic scenes, but in later dramatic ones, sparks often fly. 

Scott Thomas’ and Kline’s scenes together start out tart, as the daughter takes an instant dislike to the New Yorker who suddenly takes up residence in her home. Part of the problem is that Kline’s character is often so unlikeable – petulant, inflexible, even childish – although he mellows as the story unfolds and family secrets come out.

Despite some charming Paris locations and lovely, well-composed photography, the film feels stagey. Secrets are revealed and personal transformations take place, and Kline reveals the depth of his pain at what he sees as his father’s indifference to him. 

But Horovitz’s direction never seems to bring out the right emotional chord among the actors, who often seem to be reciting their lines in their own individual worlds, at least until near the film’s end.

“My Old Lady” has some enjoyable moments, though its stagebound feel seems to weigh it down. The film is a mixed bag of good scenes and predictable tricks, but the ultimate message, when it finally gets to it, is a good one,  and the cast is certainly talented.