Days of whine and neuroses: My Old Lady **1/2 & A Master Builder ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 20, 2014)

Drunken boor(s): Kevin Kline hams it up in My Old Lady

What am I, a theater critic now? The truthful answer would be “no”, but through some luck of the draw, I find myself reviewing two films rooted in the boards. Quiet in the wings, please. First up is My Old Lady, adapted for the screen by long-time playwright/first-time film director Israel Horovitz from his own original stage production.

As I am wholly ignorant regarding Mr. Horovitz’s oeuvre (save for the film version of his Author! Author!), I may be talking out of school, but the setup in his film feels straight outta Neil Simon, in the vein of The Goodbye Girl or The Odd Couple. Kevin Kline stars as a self-absorbed New Yorker (is that redundant?) who inherits a spacious Parisian apartment from his late father.

It’s a pretty sweet deal, with just two minor drawbacks: 1) A stalwart nonagenarian (Dame Maggie Smith) and her daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas) are already in residence, and 2) An obscure French law that not only forbids the chagrined (and strapped for cash) heir from selling “his” apartment until the old lady kicks…but requires him to pay her a monthly stipend, under penalty of losing ownership.

While the setup promises a lightweight Simonesque romp, the ensuing tonal shift makes for more of a Pinteresque pity party; its punch bowl brimming with lies, bitterness and a Family Secret (which you’ll see coming a mile away).

Still, if you have to be stuck in a dusty old Parisian apartment for 107 minutes with three actors hogging the screen time, you could do worse than Kevin Kline, Dame Maggie Smith, and Kristin Scott Thomas (with a  peep from the wonderful Dominique Pinon). I only wish Horovitz had given his formidable trio of stars more interesting things to do and say.

Joy and pane: A Master Builder

Moving now from an overcrowded Parisian apartment to a sprawling mansion, the mood oddly turns more claustrophobic. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that Jonathan Demme’s A Master Builder is derived from an Ibsen play (rarely a romp in the fields).

Wallace Shawn (who adapted the screenplay from a new translation) stars as a well-to-do architect named Solness, the man who designed that mansion, and a good many others in the small (New England?) town he lives in with his long-suffering wife (Julie Hagerty). Long suffering for many reasons; not the least being the fact that her husband is a manipulative asshole (I’m not sure if that’s the literal translation from the original Norwegian, so pardon my French, and my bad English, if it ain’t).

However, this may all soon become moot, because we find the soulless Solness bedridden with some kind of indeterminate (but obviously terminal) illness, being fussed over by his wife, his doctor (Larry Pine) and his bookkeeper/mistress (Emily McDonnell).

Here’s where you need to start paying attention. Solness’ mistress is also the fiancée of his most promising protégé (Jeff Biehl), whom he has nonetheless been keeping down (remember, he’s an asshole), much to the chagrin of the gifted young architect’s sickly father (Andre Gregory), who pleads with his long-time frenemy to promote his son and let him prove his mettle. Solness refuses to comply.

Enter the Free Spirited Other (Lisa Joyce), a vivacious young woman who appears out of the blue on his doorstep (or does she…hmm). All the poisons that lurk in the mud are about to hatch out.

It’s a little bit A Christmas Carol, a little bit Tempest, a little bit All That Jazz (sans dancing), and a whole lot of angst. But again, we must consider the source material (Pop quiz: How many famous Scandinavian comedians can you name, off the top of your head? I rest my case).

Still, the script crackles with seriocomic intelligence, the cast is excellent (the radiant and charismatic Joyce is a particular standout and a great discovery) and it’s a kick to see Shawn reunited (albeit briefly) with his My Dinner With Andre co-star Gregory.

At first, Demme (Melvin and Howard, The Silence of the Lambs, Married to the Mob, Something Wild) seemed to me to be an odd choice for helming such a stagey talk fest, but refreshing myself on his resume, I realize he’s no stranger to filmed stage performance (Stop Making Sense, Swimming to Cambodia, Storefront Hitchcock). His direction here is subtle; at once coolly omniscient and warmly intimate.

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