Death is always just a few dollars away in the wry and labored French Exit, a somewhat stale tragedy of manners from director Azazel Jacobs. For Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), a wealthy New York widow, the dwindling stacks of cash in her bedroom closet are the last grains of sand in an hourglass turned upside down more than a decade ago, when her husband Frank — strongly implied to be a Bernie Madoff-style financial huckster — died and she pulled her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) out of boarding school because she needed someone new to love her. Imminently penniless, Frances decides that she and her doting son and the family cat who may or may not house the spirit of her long-deceased husband (Tracy Letts) will make a break for it: They’ll convert the money they have left to euros, sail on a tacky cruise ship across the Atlantic, and hole up in a borrowed Paris apartment until spent dry.
And its from there that begins a sleepy, overcast-filled Sunday afternoon of a movie that often feels like the silliest thing that Whit Stillman never made. The film’s best stretches find some cold-as-dry-ice wry humor, such as when Frances and Malcolm discover that cruise ship morgues are a lot busier than you’d imagine. The rest of it is watched with a blank stare. The unfussy approach that Jacobs honed with his past films, Terri and The Lovers, is a peculiar fit for this material: On one hand, Jacobs’ refusal to heighten the film to meet its characters at their level tends to suffocate the well-postured screwball energy percolating just below the surface, and keeps French Exit from becoming a more animated farce. On the other hand, it creates a world almost as blithely indifferent to Frances and Malcolm as they are to it in return. These people are out of step with reality, but just by a hair, and if this eccentric family portrait often seems poised to stiffen into a less symmetrical relative of The Royal Tenenbaums, even the more explicitly surreal moments in its second half keep one foot on the ground at all times. The result is a film filled with loads of ups and downs that can often feel stuck in a rut.
The film’s biggest hook, and indeed its most recommendable quality, is the handing of Michelle Pfeiffer the juicy role of Frances. Having blown through the family fortune, Frances faces total insolvency, but that hasn’t diminished by an ounce her harsh wit and droll indifference. Pfeiffer has made many a meal of disdainful dialogue, and French Exit at best operates as a platform for her to cut through everyone in sight with a pithy remark, withering look, or bored drag on a perpetually lit cigarette. In the opening half-hour or so alone, Frances starts a fire in a restaurant just to secure the check from an arrogant, feet-dragging waiter and outrageously chuckles out an amused “that’s a new one” when a fawning admirer tells her that her own husband choked to death.
Once Frances, Malcolm and their cat arrive in Paris, the family finds themselves quickly surrounded by a growing ensemble of eccentrics: an endlessly accommodating fellow widow (Valerie Mahaffey), a deadpan psychic (Danielle Macdonald), a good-natured private detective (Isaach De Bankolé), Malcolm’s abandoned fiancé (Imogen Poots), and an annoyed competitor (Daniel di Tomasso) for her affections — all stuffed, eventually, into the same French apartment. None of these oddballs are half as interesting or funny as Frances; they’re also not what you would call foils, exactly, given how infrequently their behavior resembles that of the recognizably human variety.
Adapting his own novel of the same title, Patrick DeWitt’s script creates the impression of a story whose farcical qualities, melancholy beats and offhand absurdism — the novel has been referred to as a “tragedy of errors” — all probably blended more organically and pleasurably on the page. (Such as the reoccurring element that involves a séance of the dead Frank.) DeWitt’s zingers hit and miss, some sticking in the actors’ mouth as proof that not every quip is as easily delivered as it is read. But then, maybe Jacobs is the mismatch. He seems uncertain at times how to navigate the vaguely Wes Anderson-esque pivots from quirk to sincerity. Comedy is, of course, subjective; such nuttiness in a highbrow register might delight some, but this critic definitely had some moments that felt lethargically exasperated.
As French Exit progresses it brings along an insistence that money does more to keep people apart than bring them together, and it’s as thin as it sounds. The final stretch of French Exit resolves into a rather unambiguous fantasy about the kinds of families people might be able to make for themselves if the world revolved around a different kind of currency. That reading might seem like a bit of a reach in the movie than it does in the book, but Jacobs doesn’t give us much else to hold on to. For all of its touching moments, this insubstantial adaptation is hampered by the same ambivalence that’s haunted Frances for so long. We come to know these people, but we’re not quite invited to join them. It’s never been nicer to watch a movie about people making the best of things, but French Exit is too aloof to meaningfully engage with how these characters better themselves on their way out the door. Though nearly saved by a strong Michelle Pfeiffer, French Exit ultimately becomes a sleepy endeavor; lost between unsparing eccentricities and thin, stiffly labored farcical elements.
French Exit premiered at the 2020 New York Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it in theaters on February 12, 2021