My Old Lady starts as what seems like a pleasurable fish-out-of-water trifle about a middle-aged American slacker in Paris to claim an inheritance. It deftly evolves, though, into something altogether more intense and emotional.
Thankfully, the dramatic turn doesn't make the film any less winning. Rather, the pithy early stages invest the audience in the three main characters in such a way that when harsh, sometimes ugly, truths about them are revealed, we can sympathize with all involved. And it helps immeasurably that the trio is played by top-tier acting talent in Kevin Kline, Dame Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Kline is Mathias Gold, a 57-year-old New Yorker with no family, no money and no prospects who arrives in France to take ownership of an apartment left to him by his estranged father. Rather than finding a sweet piece of Parisian real estate to flip for a financial score, Mathias finds an elderly British woman named Mathilde Girard (Smith) living in the place, the result of an odd bit of French property law called a viager.
Essentially, Mathias' father's agreement to the viager means he bought the apartment from Mathilde's family on an installment plan. Accordingly, not only must Mathias wait until Mathilde's death to take ownership of the place, he also has to continue his father's payments to her until her demise.
Much of this early setup is played for laughs, with Kline's character astonished by his bad luck and frustrated by the quirky French law, and Mathilde taking pity on him and allowing him to live in a little-used part of the apartment — for a small fee, of course.
Their odd-couple interactions, joined by Mathilde's daughter Chloé (Scott Thomas), could suffice for a light bit of comedic Paris travel porn. But director and screenwriter Israel Horovitz, adapting his own stage play, has a bigger story to tell, and it's one involving a complex web of family secrets and two seemingly opposite adults still dealing with childhood traumas.
At times, My Old Lady still feels too much like a play, with scenes moving from the apartment to beautiful city streets just to take advantage of the Paris setting. But the acting from Kline, Smith and Scott Thomas is of a caliber that makes forgiving some of the story's lackluster elements or emotional leaps as easy to swallow as a fine French wine. ♦