By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - By the time Oscar-winning actor Kevin Kline began filming the comedic drama "My Old Lady," he was very familiar with the role of the down-and-out, divorced New Yorker, who inherits a rambling apartment in Paris with a few surprises and secrets.
Kline, 66, plays Mathias Gold, an embittered, unpublished writer and recovering alcoholic nearing 60 with little to show for his life, in the film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in U.S. theaters on Wednesday.
Years before he had been offered the part in the French stage version of Israel Horovitz's three-character play of the same name. And when the prolific playwright decided to adapt it for his directorial screen debut, Horovitz turned to Kline to read it as he honed the script.
"He is at the end of his tether but there is still some shred of a possibility that he can get his life together," Kline, who nabbed an Academy Award for the comedy "A Fish Called Wanda," said about the character.
The story follows Gold, who thinks his financial problems will be solved when he inherits the Parisian garden apartment following his estranged father's death. But when he arrives to stake his claim, he discovers it is inhabited by the elderly, quick-witted Mathilde Girard, played by dual Oscar winner Maggie Smith ("The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," and "California Suite").
She sold it to Gold's father years before under the French viager system, in which the buyer pays a lump sum and monthly payments for life to the seller, who can live in it until death.
While the penniless Gold sorts himself out Girard lets him stay in a spare room, much to the dismay of her daughter, Chloe, played by Kristen Scott Thomas ("The English Patient".)
The film is a reunion for Kline and Scott Thomas, 54, who worked together in 2001's "Life as a House," but pits Kline against the formidable Smith, 79, for the first time in their long careers.
"It was a dream to watch her work, to see how she worked," said Kline, who admitted forcing her to tell him endless theater stories.
"She worked with all the greats during the heyday of British theater," Kline, a two-time Tony award winner, said.
"My Old Lady," which was filmed in Paris, is filled with plot twists, turns and surprises as the characters discover more about themselves and each other.
"He is like most of us," Kline said about Gold. "He is laboring under some misapprehensions about who he is, what life means, why he is the victim of his genetic and environmental past."
The trade magazine Variety praised the actors for their fine performances but described the film as a "clunky Ibsen-lite drama."
"The author of more than 70 plays, the 75-year-old Horovitz exhibits a tasteful stateliness in his maiden voyage behind the camera, latching onto an agreeable rhythm that nonetheless lacks much of a spark," Variety said.
(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Tom Brown)