You can't complain about the cast in "My Old Lady" — Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas going at one another in high style — and the setting of Paris at its most atmospheric is charm itself. The film in question, however, doesn't live up to the expectations its elements create.
The directorial debut of prolific 75-year-old playwright Israel Horovitz, who adapted his own play, "My Old Lady" certainly has satisfactions, but they are incomplete ones.
Awkwardly balanced between comedy and significance, with plotting that gets increasingly schematic and unconvincing, "My Old Lady" is bound and determined to get more serious than it is capable of sustaining.
Because the film's stars are such gifted performers, and because "My Old Lady" is at pains to put its most entertaining foot forward first, it takes a bit of time to understand how off-putting each of the characters can be.
It also takes protagonist Mathias Gold (Kline), who asks everyone to call him Jim, some time to understand exactly what kind of a peculiarly Parisian situation he's fallen into, a state of affairs that gives the film its name.
Gold is introduced tentatively exploring a marvelous old pile of a Parisian apartment supposedly located in the Marais but actually shot in a self-contained city within a city in the 13th Arrondissement called la Manufacture.
The apartment is the only thing Gold's recently deceased but long-estranged father has left him in his will. He's spent his last dime getting to Paris from America, and he'd like to sell the apartment as soon as possible.
There is, wouldn't you know it, just one catch. The apartment's current resident and the old lady of the title, nonagenarian Mathilde Girard (Smith), turns out to be his partner in a viager, a complex French real estate transaction. The bottom line is that Gold can't occupy the apartment until Madame Girard dies, and he has to pay her a monthly fee in the bargain.
It rapidly becomes clear that Gold, who gets into the habit of calling his august tenant "Mrs. G," is a ne'er-do-well, a thrice-divorced unpublished novelist with a drinking problem who has not made much of his life.
Gold has reached age 57, Mrs. G witheringly points out, with "so little to show for it." When Gold complains about the brusqueness of that judgment, she snaps right back, "I'm 90. Subtlety is not something that interests me."
Though Mrs. G is a considerably more fragile character than "Downton Abbey's" dowager dragon, no one can deliver dialogue like this like Maggie Smith. The only downside to the amusing moments she spends sparring with canny veteran Kline is that they mislead us as to where this film is going.
Mrs. G agrees to temporarily rent Gold a room in the apartment, which is when he discovers she does not live alone. Her unmarried daughter Chloe (Scott Thomas), who works as a teacher but devotes most of her time to being angry at Gold for initially unspecified reasons, is there as well.
The self-absorbed American, for his part, is always looking for the monetary angle. Gold attempts to sell anything in the apartment he can walk away with and even locates a potential buyer for the place, which makes Chloe even angrier.
Inevitably, the longer Gold stays in the apartment, the more these three lives intertwine, with consequences that are neither amusing or even palatable. For one thing, Gold falls off the wagon, and even in the talented Kline's hands, one more boorish movie drunk is simply one more boorish movie drunk.
More than that, as everyone's messy past gets brought to light, increasingly serious emotional complications arise that don't come close to being rewarding. It's not that the actors can't play both comedy and its opposite, it's that the script is not there for them to do so convincingly.
What is there is Paris, and even though it's wonderful to see it, it's not enough.
'My Old Lady'
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.