Producers: Christine Haebler. Christine Piovesan, Noah Segal, Trish Dolman, Katie Holly and Olivier Glaas Director: Azazel Jacobs Screenplay: Patrick deWitt Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Valerie Mahaffey, Susan Coyne, Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald, Isaach de Bankolé, Daniel di Tomasso and Tracy Letts Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Director Azazel Jacobs seems desperate to bring an oddball Wes Anderson vibe to his film of the screenplay Patrick deWitt has fashioned from his own novel. But he’s also making a star vehicle for Michelle Pfeiffer, and in the end “French Exit” feels like an unhappy compromise between those two goals.
Frances Price (Pfeiffer) is a widowed Manhattan socialite who’s on point of running out of her late husband’s money—which was not her intent: as she informs the family lawyer, she’d planned to die before going broke. Her only recourse, she’s told, is to sell off her apartment and all else that remains and live off the proceeds, and she takes that course of action.
Unutterably bored with and scornful of almost everything and anyone, France is always ready with withering remarks and dismissive scowls, delivering them with a tone of supreme indifference to propriety or people’s feelings. She does make exceptions, though. She’s fond of her old friend Joan (Susan Coyne), who’s so concerned about her imminent insolvency, and the social embarrassment it will cause, that she offers Frances the use of her Paris apartment, gratis.
She’s also protective of her son Malcolm, whom she spirited off from boarding school when he was a boy (played by Eddie Holland) upon his father’s death, and who, now in the person of Lucas Hedges, has obviously been brought up to share her languid attitude of exhausted entitlement, along with a puppy-like devotion to her. Naturally he will accompany her to Paris, though it will mean leaving his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Potts) behind.
Frances is also is solicitous of an elegant black cat she calls Small Frank—not because she particularly likes the animal, but because she believes that the spirit of her late husband Franklin (Tracy Letts) inhabits it, since it was with him when he died. Small Frank is the feline equivalent of Frances and Malcolm, its carelessly snooty attitude as it ambles about reflecting their accustomed lassitude.
Frances and Malcolm travel to France by ship, on the voyage encountering Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), a fortune-teller whose specialty is informing old rich folk when they’re going to die. (The problem is, her predictions are accurate.) She also claims the ability to communicate with Small Frank.
That will become an important ingredient in the extra-quirky plot when Small Frank goes missing in Paris and Frances is anxious to track the feline down. She’s already acquired a kooky new friend in Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), a lonely American widow who invites the Prices over to her place and glommed onto them immediately. Now that the cat has gone, Frances hires a solemn detective (Isaach de Bankolé) to find Madeleine, so that she can contact the feline and discover its whereabouts.
The overcrowding continues as Joan arrives, concerned about Frances’ state of mind. (Not unreasonably, perhaps, given that she’s taken to handing out wads of the dough she got from the sale of Franklin’s stuff to waiters and street people she sees hassled by the cops.) So does Susan, along with her new beau Tom (Daniel di Tomasso), a straight-laced guy who can’t understand why she’s still torn between him and Malcolm.
So “French Exit” winds up with a full house of misfits and those who look on their antics in bewilderment. It strives to be a modern version of a screwball comedy, but winds up seeming screwy but not much of a ball for the audience. The archness and wacky artificiality call Anderson to mind, but there’s also an overpowering desire to make us care about characters that, frankly, never seem remotely real, or particularly likable.
That’s not for lack of trying on the part of the cast. Pfeiffer, most notably, draws on her ample store of haughtiness to play an Auntie Mame type who’s lost all enthusiasm for life, and Hedges brings perhaps a too convincing hangdog quality to moribund Malcolm. Though everyone else is in tune with deWitt and Jacobs’s conception, the only one who manages to be truly amusing—and poignant—is Mahaffey. Poor Mme. Reynard alone expresses the makers’ desire to move us as well as make us smile.
One can’t deny the film’s visual polish, courtesy of cinematographer Tobias Datum, production designer Jean-Andre Carriere and costumer Jane Petrie. And if the pacing is unhurried, that’s hardly the fault of editor Hilda Rasula, who’s only following Jacobs’ design. The spare, piano-heavy score by Nick deWitt keeps to the mood of faded elegance the film aims to convey.
Though one can appreciate the impression “French Exit” is aiming for, it’s all the more disappointing for failing to realize it.