Among the books one spots in the background of Israel Horovitz's "My Old Lady" is Spengler's "The Decline of the West," whose typography separates "De" and "Cline" in a way that can only be meant as a joke about its leading man. Kevin Kline, aka Kevin Decline, has been notoriously selective about the roles he takes, and eccentric about the roles he does. But it's easy to see why he chose this film, adapted by Horovitz from his play, especially if actorly challenge was what he was looking for.
Everything, at first, says what we're in store for is Frenchified farce. As a standardized Paris is introduced via skyscapes and sculpted doorways, the down-on-his-luck Mathias Gold (Kline) arrives from America with his worldly possessions in one bag, expecting to take possession of his inheritance: a two-level, rambling apartment with a large garden. What he discovers instead is a peculiar wrinkle in French real estate law, under which one can buy an apartment with the understanding that the occupant can stay on till he or she, uh, moves on, perhaps to the big apartment complex in the sky. Matthias' occupant is the imperious Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), who gives no indication she's going anywhere.
So: A story about two prickly but ultimately lovable people, cast into an impossible situation that can only be overcome through the evolution of their hearts? Not quite. For one thing, Horovitz is making the statement that a person's actions have unforeseeable consequences, and unforeseeable victims. Mathias' father, who bought the apartment some 40-odd years earlier, was having a decades-long affair with Mathilde, with the not-quite-full knowledge of her daughter, Chloe (Kristen Scott-Thomas). Devastating ramifications for Mathias, Chloe, his mother and her father are explored and illuminated through their alternately combative and affectionate interactions, to the point that Horovitz achieves something profound and moving.
There may be certain aspects of the story that seem conveniently improbable, but its sincerity and honesty are elevated by the performances. Ultimately, three vaguely unlikable people change, and win their audience over.
PLOT A broke American arrives in Paris to take possession of the apartment he inherited, only to find it comes with an intractable tenant.
CAST Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott-Thomas
BOTTOM LINE What starts as an elaborate sitcom becomes an emotionally substantial tragicomedy.