Parental failures, lingering filial resentments and obscure French real-estate laws are placed under the microscope in veteran playwright Israel Horovitz’s debut feature, “My Old Lady,” with only the latter yielding any novel discoveries. Handsomely mounted across some well-chosen Parisian locations, and featuring effortlessly professional performances from Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas, this often clunky Ibsen-lite drama could be a respectable arthouse earner, especially among older auds, though its translation from stage to screen looks to have been a bit rocky, and the film never manages to transcend its actors-workshop aura and develop into something deeper.
Adapted by Horovitz from his own 2002 play, “My Old Lady” stars Kline as New Yorker Mathias Gold, a depressed recovering alcoholic without a penny in the bank to show for his three unpublished novels, or an ounce of affection to show for his three failed marriages. Upon the death of his detested businessman father, Mathias learns he’s been cut out of the will save for a few old books and a multimillion-Euro apartment in Paris, which he hopes to sell to finance a new lease on life.
When he arrives in France, however, Mathias finds 94-year-old Madame Girard (Smith) living in the apartment, with some unwelcome news: Mathias’ father bought the apartment from her via France’s unusual viager equity scheme, wherein a buyer makes a down payment on a property, then agrees to pay the seller a monthly stipend and allow them to live there for the rest of their life. In other words, buyers wager on the prompt death of the seller in order to score cheap digs — and considering Madame Girard’s obvious vitality, it’s a bet that Mathias appears to be losing.
This strange policy could have easily provided the basis for an Agatha Christie murder mystery or a black comedy, but in Horovitz’s hands, it mostly just charts the course for a marathon of spleen venting and highly verbose angst. Pleading his wretchedness, Mathias convinces Madame Girard to let him stay in a spare room while he collects his bearings, much to the consternation of her daughter Chloe (Thomas), who also inhabits the Versailles-sized abode.
While it starts off with a certain sense of mischief (a scene in which Mathias pays an undercover visit to Madame Girard’s physician has a nice tinge of cruel wit), “My Old Lady” gradually becomes the type of chamber piece wherein one can roughly calculate the remaining running time by triangulating which characters have yet to face off in an orgy of angry recriminations. As a mudslide of family secrets starts to roll downhill, Madame Girard is forced to admit that her encounters with Mathias’ father went further than simple property transactions; Chloe struggles to break off a relationship with a married man, with which Mathias stages a rather lame blackmail attempt; and Mathias begins consorting with an oleaginous real-estate developer (Stephane Freiss), who wants to bulldoze the apartment to build a garish luxury hotel.
Confronted with Madame Girard’s impressive wine cellar, Mathias also promptly falls off the wagon, revealing himself to be not only a mean drunk, but also an incredibly windy one. With bottle in hand, he rages mightily to anyone who will listen, bemoaning his sad lot in life when he’s not mercilessly needling his temporary housemates or randomly quoting Yeats.
Kline’s performance is exciting to watch as a display of finely honed actorly craft — he tackles Horovitz’s often overwrought monologues with full Shakespearean brio — but rarely does his miserable character elicit much empathy or connect on a believable human level. Smith is as watchable as ever, especially as she plays the only character here who’s allowed to have any fun, while Thomas essays her role with a good deal of class and restraint, although her character’s motivations remain nebulous.
The author of more than 70 plays, the 75-year-old Horovitz exhibits a tasteful stateliness in his maiden voyage behind the camera, latching onto an agreeable rhythm that nonetheless lacks much of a spark. He does well to open up the play with jaunts around Paris, however, and production designer Pierre-Francois Limbosch furnishes the central apartment with just the right degree of clutter and disrepair.