It’s a change of pace watching a film with a 50-something character who, instead of being blamed by his children for their messed-up lives, blames his own parents for messing up his. Not necessarily a change for the better, however. Unless, that is, Kevin Kline, who more and more seems like Tom Hanks’s seedier and more entertaining brother, plays the overgrown child. He makes Israel Horovitz’s adaptation of his 2002 play “My Old Lady” — his big-screen directorial debut at age 75 — worth a look. That despite playing a character who is drunk for about a third of the movie.
Kline plays Mathias Gold (his friends call him Jim, at least when he had friends), an unshaven lost soul tracking down an address in Paris. It’s his late father’s apartment, left to him in his will, and Mathias hopes to turn it around for enough cash to pay his debts and keep him going for his remaining years — especially since he spent his last dollar on the plane ticket from New York.
Instead, he finds la vieille femme of the title, slumped in an armchair, seemingly dead. No such luck. Though 92 (she claims she’s 90, one of the wry bits that enliven the script), British-born Parisienne Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) is very much alive, and she comes with the deal. Mathias’s father bought the place as a viager, a peculiarly French arrangement by which the person buying a property only receives ownership after the current inhabitant dies. And until then Madame Girard not only lives there, but Mathias has to pay her rent.
It’s like a Parisian variation on Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give,” or the premise of another PBS Masterpiece Theater series with Smith. But further melodramatic complications arise, pointing to inevitable resolutions, and indicative of the film’s stage origins.
Mme. Girard also comes with a daughter, Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas), who takes an immediate dislike to Mathias, and not just because they first meet when he barges in on her in the bathroom. Mathias snoops around the apartment in search of items he can sell on the sly, and finds photos hinting at past secrets best unexplored. Revelations follow, some rather horrible, and the light tone underscored by a squeezebox teeters towards tragedy as the alcoholic Mathias goes off the wagon and starts depleting Mme. Girard’s excellent wine cellar. Samuel Beckett and William Butler Yeats are quoted. Even Chekhov’s loaded gun gets a nod.
In a physical sense, Horovitz has opened up his play; the movie is shot in a Paris still shimmering with the endless possibilities that Mme. Girard recalls from her youth. But the film is closed narratively, with a predictable outcome. With one exception: Mathias is wandering along the Seine and, apropos of nothing, a woman in black appears on the other bank, singing. Then she passes, and the show goes on.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.