My Old Lady lures you in with the promise of a visit to Paris in the company of Maggie Smith, embodying her latest grand/ditzy/funny/withering dame. But once the movie kicks in, you discover you’re mainly stuck in a shadowy, rambling apartment, with a mopey Kevin Kline instead.
He plays Mathias Gold, an American with three unpublished novels, three ex-wives and, at age 57, too many self-pitying grievances to number. More on that later. We meet him as he arrives in Paris to scope out that grand apartment, the only thing left to him by his recently departed, estranged, detested father. The place is enormous, with a garden — worth a fortune. He plans to sell immediately.
The one catch? Smith, as the 92-year-old Mathilde, whom he encounters dozing in a chair in one of the flat’s many rooms. She’s no mere tenant, but the beneficiary of a peculiar French real estate contract, a “vie âgée.” When Mathias’s dad bought the property more than four decades ago, it was with the covenant that Mathilde could remain in residence there until her death — and not rent-free. No, as the broke Mathias quickly learns, he is expected to pay her 2,400 Euros a month to remain in the property that he is desperate to sell. Well, until she croaks, at least.
Playwright-director Israel Horovitz sets up a great situation here. If only his follow-through were worthwhile. Will it be a black comedy, focusing on Mathias’s schemes to have Mathilde knocked off? Will it turn into a hilarious comic power play between the duo? Either of these avenues might have been fruitful, but the script quickly bogs down into a series of scenes featuring the formerly sober Mathias getting drunk and complaining about being raised by an unloving father. Sample line:
“I was born with a silver knife in my back.”
Kline (never a particularly warm or persuasive dramatic actor) does his best to sell this self-pitying drudge, who clearly thinks everything he says is a priceless bon mot. But he can’t make us like the guy. Kristin Scott Thomas likewise can’t make sense of her role as Smith’s thin-lipped spinster daughter. The actress tries her damnedest when the jerry-rigged plot forces her character to become enamored of a man who not only wants to evict her from her home, but has previously been a snarky bastard.
After a while, her character is infected by the screenplay’s blame-it-on-the-parents psychobabble: she starts griping about her loveless childhood, too. In his mid-70s, playwright Horovitz is striking out into new territory by directing his first film, but his script remains stuck in the kind of dramatic hinterlands that already felt old-school when I first started writing about theater in the 1980s. Even Dame Smith, if not wasted here, is muted by the material. Oh well …
I wish I had better news regarding Take Me to the River, a documentary about the vibrant, longstanding Memphis music scene. The heart sinks a level, though, at first glance of narrator Terrence Howard, wearing the kind of self-consciously fly duds he might have worn as the pimp in Hustle & Flow. He refers to Memphis as “this musical utopia,” which is about as deep as the analysis and historical context get.
Mainly the movie spends its time in recording rooms, listening to old timers like Otis Clay, William Bell (the Stax singer/songwriter who now lives in Atlanta), Mavis Staples and so on talk about their music, kidney replacements and beloved colleagues who have passed. Sometimes, they sing. But so does Howard, in one of the extended musical sessions of the film.
It’s one of those movies that looks like it was a lot of fun to make, a chance to hang out with these old timers and listen to them cut loose. But Martin Shore’s directing debut lacks an organizing structure. Mainly it feels like an opportunity that comes too late.
Many of the legends discussed have already passed on to that great jam session in the sky. Two others interviewed here died before the film was finished. For the record, there’s a record: the soundtrack, now on sale. It’s hard not to think that product is the actual reason this project was assembled. In the end, Take Me to the River feels less like a loving celebration of a place, its music and its personalities, and more like a lunge for some lucrative commercial synergy.
My Old Lady. With Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas. Written and directed by Israel Horovitz. 106 minutes. Rated PG-13. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Take Me to the River. A documentary by Martin Shore. Rated PG. 95 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.