With so few movies still sight unseen in 2020, French Exit has represented a major X factor in not just the awards season, but the cinematic landscape on the whole. Could it be a (somewhat) late-breaking surprise? Unfortunately, no, that’s not the case. Well, it may surprise, but not in the way it was hoped for. Closing out the 58th New York Film Festival, French Exit represents one of the year’s bigger disappointments. Despite a game Michelle Pfeiffer, this overly written and under-plotted lark never goes anywhere, opting to aimlessly meander. It’s pretentious, slackly paced, and worst…only sporadically funny. It all adds up to a significant misfire for all involved.
French Exit wants to be a classy comedy, anchored by a showy turn by Pfeiffer. Unfortunately, nothing here is up to snuff. Director Azazel Jacobs can’t harness the potential of the actress playing such a big character, instead introducing monotony with sly remarks, which does not for a satisfying movie make. Even without Academy Award ambitions attached, this is still very much a letdown.
Socialite Frances Price (Pfeiffer) has just been informed that she’s broke. The money she and her son Malcolm Price (Lucas Hedges) have been living on since Frances’ husband Frank (Tracy Letts) passed away is gone. Advised to sell her possessions for some quick cash, Frances seems both totally shocked and oddly indifferent. As we learn through people who come into contact with her, she has a reputation for being odd. It’s a reputation well earned, too, and one that’s infected Malcolm, as he’s unable to tell her that he’s engaged to Susan (Imogen Poots). When Frances decides that they’ll move to Paris on a whim, Malcolm accompanies her, as well as their cat Little Frank (more on him momentarily), leaving Susan in the lurch.
Decamping New York for France on a luxury liner, they come into contact with increasingly odd characters, including Madeline (Danielle Macdonald), a fortune-teller on the boat who knows that Little Frank is actually inhabited by the spirit of Frank. Once in Paris, their circle includes the quirky Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), as well as numerous encounters with people who Frances gives increasingly large amounts of her inheritance to. While Frances goes about her days, Malcolm reaches out to Susan. Eventually, a whole host of characters are sharing the same space, with chaos ensuing.
Without question, Michelle Pfeiffer is going big here. On the other end of the spectrum, Lucas Hedges is often nearly comatose. They’re on opposite sides of the acting world, and though both are decent enough, neither breathes enough life into these under-written characters. The same goes for the supporting cast, who mostly seem to exist in order to be mocked or tee up a comment from Frances. Nothing seems important to them, so nothing seems important to us. Then, there’s Tracy Letts, who is absolutely wasted here (a cinematic crime if ever there was one). Anyone hoping this would be Pfeiffer’s Oscar vehicle is going to be sorely disappointed.
Director Azazel Jacobs and writer Patrick deWitt (adapting his own novel) surely thought all of this was clever. alas, it really isn’t. One sequence involving an admittedly funny description of a character works like gangbusters, and a visual gag involving something in a freezer hits well, but too much falls flat. Jacobs brings very little visually speaking to the flick, while deWitt’s dialogue surely worked better on the page than it does here on the screen.
French Exit closes out NYFF this year in middling fashion, plain and simple. The occasional decent joke and acceptable turns from Hedges and Pfeiffer are just not enough to save you from boredom and a sense of a real missed opportunity. Sony Pictures Classics was probably right to keep this one largely unseen until now, as advanced viewings would have ruined whatever buzz that had built up around Pfeiffer. Her candidacy in Best Actress is likely kaput, but more notably, this just is not a good film. Alas.