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My Old Lady
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by Jay Seaver

"Not what it looks like, but winds up being pretty good."
4 stars

I'd heard the story that likely inspired "My Old Lady" (and is retold within the movie) before, and I suspect that knowing it or just getting the gist of it from the start of the picture may give one the wrong impression of what sort of film it's going to be. It takes a while for the film to really find its feet, but it does eventually, the way one sort of figures it must with the cast it has.

The story in question involves a viager contract - an arrangement in France where an elderly person sells a property at a reduced price but can continue to reside there, also collecting an annuity, until he or she passes away. Sometimes, though, the tenant will actually outlive the buyer. That's the case here, as Mathias "Jim" Gold (Kevin Kline) arrives in Paris, not realizing that the spacious apartment he inherited from his father is still occupied by Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), over ninety but quite healthy, and he owes her 2400 euros per month. More than inconvenient, as he's penniless, and the apartment's other resident - Mathilde's daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas) takes an immediate dislike to him even before hearing he plans to sell to developer François Roy (Stephane Freiss).

There's a heck of a black comedy to be made with this premise, and given that it sounds familiar beyond both versions of The Ladykillers, I suspect it already has been done. And, indeed, the film spends the first little bit twitching in that direction, establishing Jim as something of a scoundrel - with Chloe perhaps being kind of sneaky herself - while Mathilde almost seems to be taunting him with her gourmet meals and fine wine, blithely living a lifestyle that threatens to drain him. The potential for that sort of movie is clear, and that's why it initially seems disappointing - writer/director Israel Horovitz (adapting his own play) seems half-hearted, not really letting his cast go for the fat target he's placed in front of them.

It turns out that he's got other plans, though, revealing that this apartment is not some random investment that Gold pĂȘre made forty years ago. The inheritance, then, is mainly a way to get these three people spending time in the same rooms, with the ghosts of three others constantly hanging over them. Things plunge into much more serious territory, and while there are moments when that is a bit uneven - including a thread that may seem a step too far toward the end, the extra weight winds up suiting the story. All the things that were introduced as kind of funny at the start develop into an interesting web of secrets and conflicts without Horovitz having to walk anything back.

The film's stage-play heritage asserts itself more as it goes on, even though the action never actually seems that constricted to the apartment. The characters have more chances to spar with their words, and that lets Kevin Kline stop playing things halfway. Even if Jim wasn't spending much of the latter portion of the movie drinking (which Kline does play sort of big), Kline gets to show Jim as damaged and angry rather than a bit of a cipher, and if his lines and delivery are a bit theatrical, it's certainly something that Kline can make work. It's a marked contrast to Maggie Smith's gruff Mathilde, who doesn't really change as things come out, and by doing so becomes a bit more intriguing.

It's Kristin Scott Thomas who really comes on in the end, as she gets great scenes with both Kline and Smith, as well as with characters peripheral to the main trio. While the whole group gets their world view rocked a bit, Thomas is the one who gets to show it with actions and shifted attitude as much as words. She's almost never on her own the way Kline occasionally is, but she gives a boost to every scene she's in. The same, by the way, can be said for Dominique Pinon, whose realtor character is mainly there to give Jim and the audience information; he serves as charmingly eccentric leavening throughout and is one of a couple reasons to stick around through the credits.

"My Old Lady" doesn't evolve into a different film from the one it started as with particular stealth, and the viewers are likely to be more aware of it being a play being made into a movie or disguised as a comedy in the first act than they might really want to be. Once that's all sorted, though, there's a fine cast doing good work - enough to make the sort of impression that smooths over some of the earlier hitches.

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originally posted: 10/01/14 15:06:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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  10-Sep-2014 (PG-13)



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