Michelle Pfeiffer gives a Bentley of a performance but is stuck in a wobbly and rusty vehicle titled “French Exit,” a smug and bone-dry and ultimately insufferable farce that holds one’s interest for a time before practically inviting us to turn our attentions elsewhere. “I don’t like you people,” one supporting player says to a roomful of characters relatively late in the film, and as he heads for the door we are inclined to call out, “Can I catch a ride?”
Director Azazel Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick deWitt (adapting his 2018 novel of the same name) have delivered a handsomely appointed but tiresome First World Problems story teeming with characters who in most cases aren’t nearly as eccentric and charming and witty as they fancy themselves. The closest thing to an exception would be Pfeiffer’s Manhattan-based Frances, a strikingly beautiful and icy cold, blunt-speaking socialite who attained a certain level of gossip-site notoriety when she found her wealthy husband dead as a doornail and zipped off for a weekend getaway in Vail to clear her head before bothering to report his demise to the authorities.
Living with her exceedingly unambitious and aimless grown son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), taunting him with barbs such as “Menstruating?” when he’s in a particularly pouty frame of mind, Frances is content to live out her days in bitter comfort when she gets some harsh news: She’s out of money. The spigot has run dry.
Well, “out of money” in a one-percenter kind of way. There’s no more cash in the accounts, but Frances can keep the profits from the sale of her estate assets, and she’s been offered the use of an apartment in Paris, so it’s not as if Frances and Malcolm and their cat known as Small Frank (so named because Frances believes it’s the reincarnated spirit of her dead husband Frank) will be on the streets with cardboard signs and plastic cups. They’re just going to have to make a relatively modest go of it for the foreseeable future.
In Paris. Rent-free.
We’re squarely in Wes Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Royal Tennenbaums”) territory here, sans the hilariously wacky characters and the rapier wit. “French Exit” has its memorable and well-choreographed set-piece moments, as when Frances puts a snooty French waiter in his place by literally starting a small fire, but with nearly every introduction of a putatively unique character, the farce feels forced. Pfeiffer is delivering one of the best performances of her career as the complex and formidable and deeply sad Frances, but she’s like a world-class basketball player stuck on the court with a bunch of weekend amateurs. There’s no one to give her a decent game.
A major problem is the Lucas Hedges character of Malcolm. Hedges is a wonderful actor who has enjoyed an incredible run playing troubled sons and/or nephews to an incredible lineup of stars, from Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea” to Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman in “Boy Erased” to Julia Roberts in “Ben Is Back” to Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards …” to Meryl Streep in “Let Them All Talk.” He’s playing a similar role here, but Malcolm is such a wimpy milquetoast, it’s as if he’s barely in the room at times. He can’t even bring himself to tell his mother he’s engaged to a fantastic young woman (Imogen Poots), who breaks up with him over his cowardice but inexplicably shows up in Paris with her new boyfriend just to make sure there’s no chance of making it work with Malcolm. Why she would want to make it work with this cipher is beyond understanding.
Isaach De Bankole plays a private detective tasked with finding Small Frank when the cat goes missing, while Danielle Macdonald is a medium who just might be able to communicate with Small Frank. In the most unfortunate development of all, we actually hear from the cat, and not even the great Tracy Letts as the voice of Small Frank can salvage that trainwreck of an idea. “French Exit” has a few grace notes in its final chapter, with Pfeiffer delivering beautifully subtle work as Frances comes to terms with her fate, but it’s too little, far too late.