An aging Manhattan socialite living on what’s barely left of her inheritance moves to a small apartment in Paris with her son and cat.
“My plan was to die before the money ran out but then I kept not dying and here I am.”
Perhaps not the best of plans but this is what New York City socialite Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) opted for, not so much as a choice but more as a problem that she would always do tomorrow. Finally backed into a corner she cannot charm her way out of, she liquidates what few assets she has left, intent on fleeing to France where her friend Joan (Susan Coyne) has an empty apartment where she can stay until she figures out her next move. With her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) in tow, the pair of wayward ex pats board a cruise ship to sail into the unknown, not at all certain what the future will bring but certain something will turn up…they hope.
If there were ever a film that succeeds thanks to the charismatic turn of its lead performer, it’s Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit, an adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel that rests firmly on Michelle Pfeiffer’s shoulders. It goes without saying that she’s more than capable of bearing this load and it’s a delight to see the screen veteran cast a withering look, toss off a barbed bon mot or instantly take control of a room simply by strolling in. And while it would be a bit unfair to say the film would be a failure with anyone else in the role, it’s hard to imagine it succeeding at all without her.
Perhaps the most unusual thing about the film, and something that makes for a sluggish first act, is the mixture of tones Jacobs employs and his failure to commit fully to the atmopshere he creates for the movie’s final half-hour. There’s a wry irony at play at the start as we get the background on Frances and her marriage, the circumstances surrounding her becoming a widow and her relationship with her son. This exposition is presented in a perfunctory manner, Pfeiffer’s charisma the only thing keeping us hooked throughout. The biggest misstep early on is that so little time is spent exploring the relationship between mother and son. It’s obvious they are both remote emotionally and she dotes upon him, which has had a profound effect on the way he lives his life. Not delving into the why and wherefore of this, seems a misstep.
However, once Frances and Malcolm land in the City of Lights, the film veers into absurdist territory as a group of eccentrics come out of the woodwork once they settle into their Paris digs. A medium named Madeline (Danielle Macdonald), who they met on their crossing, tracks them down and conducts a comedic séance, while a detective with an ulterior motive (Isaach De Bankole), who they also met at sea, stops by for an extended stay as well. Never mind that Malcolm’s desperate girlfriend (Imogen Poots) shows up with her new beau in a blatant attempt to elicit a jealous response; a nosey neighbor (a scene-stealing Valerie Mahaffey) has already nearly sucked all the oxygen out of the room.
Had Jacobs allowed this flat of eccentrics to go full looney with Pfeiffer standing as a disdainful commentator amidst the turmoil that swirled about her, French Exit might have been an effective madcap comedy. As it is, the film is a star turn that reminds us of Pfeiffer’s magnetism, the rare performer who’s able to captivate us and elevate a mediocre script into an entertaining lark, a pleasant enough timewaster that allows us to bask in her presence.