‘My Old Lady’: Comedy takes an atmospheric turn

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Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith in “My Old Lady.” | COHEN MEDIA GROUP

By Mary Houlihan/For Sun-Times Media

“My Old Lady” is the film-directing debut of veteran playwright Israel Horovitz, who has written an occasional screenplay over the years, including 1982’s “Author! Author!” Also the writer of nearly 70 plays (and the father of Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz and film producer Rachel Horovitz), he has gathered a stellar cast — Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas — for the comedy-drama, an adaptation of one of his own plays.

At first a sprightly comedy in the French tradition, it later turns into a darkly atmospheric drama about intentional and unintentional damage to a son and daughter by parents only intent on their own misguided happiness.

Three-times-divorced Mathias Gold (Kline), failed novelist and recovered alcoholic, has arrived in Paris on a mission to claim his inheritance from his wealthy, estranged father — a marvelous, old-school Paris apartment that oozes charm and mystery (stellar work by set designer Pierre-Francois Limbosch).

He’s broke and plans on selling the apartment, which he’s told is worth millions. But to his dismay, Mathias finds an elderly woman, Mathilde Girard (Smith), living there, and she conveys some very bad news. The apartment is under a viager contract, a unique and complicated French institution that prevents him from selling the apartment until the tenant dies (her husband had sold the place to Mathias’ father). And to make matters worse, Mathias must make monthly payments to her or forfeit his claim on the apartment. “He got me again,” Mathias mutters, referring to the father he hated.

Mathias is invited by the somewhat friendly Mathilde to stay in a musty upstairs bedroom until a solution is found. But the situation gets stickier when he meets Mathilde’s icy and very angry daughter, Chloe (Thomas), who has no intention of giving up her ancestral home.

All of this amounts to a classic set-up for a comedy, but as hints of Mathias’ depression multiply, the film moves into its darker sections filled with family secrets and lengthy monologues that hint at its original structure as a stage play. Much of what is revealed is predictable; you see it coming early on. But thanks to the fine performances of the three leads and French actors in lesser roles, particularly Dominique Pinon as a sympathetic real estate agent, the film holds up remarkably well.

Even at his blustery worse, drunk and ranting, Kline manages to come across as likable and sympathetic; his account of the relationship with his father is etched with emotion and loss. Smith, best known today as “Downton Abbey’s” snarky Violet Crawley, is at her usual level of genius as a lively 92-year-old engaged with the modern world.

Sometimes the difficulty of transferring a play to film lies in the confines of its insular stage world. But Paris is a city Horovitz knows well, and he expands the story by moving out of the apartment building and offering many scenes of picturesque French streets, colorful shops and the quiet Seine, where one scene with Mathias and an opera singer is particularly lovely.

All together these elements meld into an involving story about damaged souls looking for redemption in a messy world. Even though it is not of their making, Mathias and Chloe are the ones who must deal with these roadblocks and hopefully move on to a richer existence.

[s3r star=3/4]

Cohen Media Group presents a film written and directed by Israel Horovitz, based on his play. Running time: 107 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic material and some sexual references). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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