Life has a funny way of making strange bedfellows. With his late-breaking directorial debut My Old Lady, septuagenarian playwright Israel Horowitz offers up a "three-hander" that proves the point by offering choice roles to Kevin Kline, Dame Maggie Smith, and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Kline plays down-and-out novelist Mathias Gold, who spends his last dime on a plane ticket to Paris to claim and resell the apartment of his recently deceased father. There's but one problem: The apartment remains occupied by the previous owner Mathilde Girard (Smith), whose arrangement with Gold's father entitled her not only to remain in the apartment after having sold it to him, but, under France's peculiar viager system, to command a monthly fee for doing so. Girard allows the destitute Gold to stay until he works out his next move, much to the withering-glare chagrin of her houseguest—and daughter—Chloe (Thomas).
These are the makings of some kind of farce, but Horowitz has in mind to dig, painfully and deeply, under the characters' carefully manicured (in the case of the Girard women) or wildly untended (in the case of Gold) surfaces. Mathias' alcoholism inevitably enables him to let spill the sources of his unhappiness, rooted in his relationship with his father and symptomatic in his three failed marriages, unsatisfactory career growth, and financial destitution, while the brittle Chloe reveals that she has more in common with Mathias than she'd care to admit. Naturally, Mathilde has her share of secrets, too, now inconveniently nipping at her as all three characters contemplate her final stretch of life.
Those with a low tolerance for theatricality in their films may wish to avoid My Old Lady. While Horowitz makes good use of Parisian cafes and streets (and a real estate office with a view of them) to alleviate the sense of being stage-bound to the apartment, he makes no effort to disguise the theatricality of his language. But there's pleasure in the snappy dialogue and rambling, self-revelatory speechifying, especially as embraced by that most theatrical of screen actors, Kline. Smith and Thomas, playing in a more reactive vein to Kline's emotionally and loquaciously explosive character, color in more naturalistic tones that strike a dramatic balance.
How relevant or relatable viewers will find all this is questionable, but fans of the actors will take true pleasure in their tart verbal sparring, there's cathartic relief to be had in the characters' vomiting up of their pain and, since My Old Lady is ultimately more comedy than tragedy, their climactic coming to terms. After all the wicked nastiness, Horowitz offers up the just plain nice thought that three hurt people can share one redemptive healing process. Like the new women in his life, Mathias may not wind up as good as new (who does?), but he arrives at the best he can hope for: as good as Gold.