‘My Old Lady’ strains for warmth, whimsy

“My Old Lady” takes place in the beautiful Marais district of Paris, has three first-rate actors in the main roles, deals with worthwhile issues – parental neglect, alcoholism, illicit but long-lasting love – and I didn’t believe more than one word in five. Happy as I am to see senior citizens Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith gainfully employed, I wish they were drawing paychecks elsewhere.

Writer Israel Horovitz makes his directing debut with a script from his own play. As a director, he finds a satisfyingly relaxed rhythm. As a writer, he asks us to empathize with characters who wallow in self-pity, people in their 50s who have spent their whole lives trying to please (or displease) parents who didn’t love them enough. The second time someone spoke of being “cursed” by parental coldness, I wished he’d jump into the Seine or onto an analyst’s couch.

Kline plays Mathias Gold, who’s flat broke and foolish at 57. He travels to Paris (on a one-way ticket, all he can afford) to claim an inheritance he hopes to sell: An apartment willed to him by his distant father that’s worth 9 million euros.

He neglects to hire an attorney, of course, so he’s surprised to discover that Mathilde Gerard (Smith) has the right to live there until she dies. He’s further distraught to learn her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott-Thomas) expects him to sell it to her, rather than someone who will ruin the quaint neighborhood with a modern hotel.

Horowitz peoples the film with a foxy developer (Stéphane Freiss), a wise yet whimsical real estate agent (Dominique Pinon), a doctor taking English lessons (Noémie Lvovsky) who’s startled to learn the book she’s chosen is pornographic. (That’s the movie’s cheapest laugh.)

But the focus remains on the mopey, whiny couple in their 50s and crusty old Mathilde, who unveils secrets that may not be hard to guess. We’re meant to root for them to get together; I mainly rooted for them to grow up.

Smith gives one of her most complex recent performances. It’s hard to take Kline’s bouts of self-laceration seriously; there’s something comic about his face and manner, and he’s best when being ironic or rude. Scott Thomas provides the real pathos, as Chloé finally awakens to the source of her depression.

By the way, the 66-year-old Kline and 54-year-old Scott Thomas are supposed to be the same age, though he looks like her uncle in even the most flattering light. Since the dawn of Hollywood, men and women have never aged at the same speed.