Friday, September 19, 2014

In Theaters: My Old Lady

Adapting theater into film is always such a mixed bag. With musicals, the genre at least provides ample opportunity for a film to stretch its visual legs a bit, but stage dramas are especially tricky. Many of the best ones usually involve few characters, few locations, and minimal moving about the cabin. So much of the emoting in a stage play has to come from voice inflection and dramatic dialogue, because the audience in the theater mostly can't see the nuances of an actor's facial expressions. But with film, the creation of emotion largely comes from the editing and camera-work. And that's when a drama like My Old Lady, adapted from the stage, runs into problems. 

The story here is a good one. Kevin Kline stars as Mathias, an alcoholic with three ex-wives and very little else to his name. When his wealthy father dies, he declines to leave Mathias any inheritance except a beautiful French apartment he owned. But Mathias finds out the catch when he travels to Paris looking to sell the apartment in order to get his life back on financial track. It turns out the apartment is part of a French tradition called a "viager," which means the sale of the apartment is not complete until the current occupant dies, and the buyer still pays until that happens. So, Mathias suddenly finds out that his incredibly valuable Parisian apartment comes with Mathilde, a 92-year old woman (Maggie Smith ), and a monthly fee of 2,400 Euros that he must pay to her until she dies. Also, her daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas) is there, and then he finds out Mathilde and his father had been having an affair decades ago that negatively impacted Mathias's childhood, and of course everything becomes more complicated. 

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here. Maggie Smith, for starters, is fantastic as Mathilde. The emotional resonance of the story mostly works, as does the subtle humor and the French flavor of the musical score. The source material is by Israel Horovitz, a lauded playwright with a lengthy career (and father of Beastie Boy Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz), and Israel also serves as screenwriter and director here, adapting his own work into film for the first time. But film follows such a different visual language than theater that it's difficult not to spend the majority of My Old Lady's run time feeling like you're simply watching a filmed play. Is that ultimately a bad thing? That largely depends on what you want out of a film-going experience. My Old Lady is not a visually interesting movie, but it is still an interesting movie. Are those two things mutually exclusive? Maybe, but not absolutely. The story is interesting, the dialogue is compelling, and the acting is mostly top-notch (though Kevin Kline over-plays thing a bit, which may simply be the direction he received from Horovitz being used to the demands of theater). Is that enough to make a good movie? Again, that depends on what any individual viewer believes the qualities of a good movie are. For myself, My Old Lady is half of a good movie, but one that it's clear came from all of a good stage play. For 106 minutes, that can be good enough. 

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