By Lynn Venhaus
The filmmaker tries to sell the upper-class heroine as an eccentric, free-spirited widow that’s a cross between Auntie Mame and a Wes Anderson movie character but she is such an insufferable spoiled snob that it’s painful to watch.
Frances Price is a 60-year-old penniless Manhattan maven (Michelle Pfeiffer), her inheritance all gone from her late husband Franklin, decides to move to Paris, where a friend lends her an apartment. To make the transatlantic jump happen, she sells her possessions, then takes her cat, Small Frank, who may have assumed the spirit of Franklin (Tracy Letts), and her directionless son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) with her. She attracts an odd assortment of people along the way.
As played by the miscast Michelle Pfeiffer, the annoying socialite has absolutely no redeemable qualities. She’s rude to kind people – you’ll wince when she is mean to the sympathetic and lonely Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey, in the film’s best performance). Frances, who must have always gotten by on her beauty, likes causing a ruckus because she can.
In a flat screenplay adapted by Patrick DeWitt from his 2018 international bestselling novel, Frances gained notoriety 12 years ago when she discovered her husband dead in bed and still went away for the weekend instead of attending to the pertinent matters at home. DeWitt’s principal characters are too remote to care about, not to mention hedonistic.
The ubiquitous cat, as voiced by the droll Tracy Letts, brightens up this off-putting tale, but it is such a jarring shift in tone and a bizarre addition to the third act, which keeps going like a runaway train until we hit 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Lucas Hedges does himself no favors by playing the dullard son. He lumbers through this film with neither wit nor grace, which is so rare after his stellar work in “Manchester by the Sea,” “Boy Erased,” “Waves” and “Lady Bird.”
Malcolm, who doesn’t show emotion, is such a blank slate that it is not evident he is in love with Susan (Imogene Poots), and that subplot resurfaces when his former fiancé arrives in Paris, but it’s a tedious distraction because it doesn’t resemble any kind of relationship among healthy adults.
There is a random detour with Madeleine the Medium (Danielle Macdonald) that he meets on the cruise to Europe that goes nowhere, except for introducing the supernatural so the cat can be a bigger part of the story.
Now, Manhattan and Paris are exquisite locations, therefore the cinematography by Tobias Datum makes the cities inviting and luxurious.
But this is such a strange hodge-podge of rich people lifestyles that the after-thought style of director Azazel Jacobs doesn’t connect at all. Most of all, the pacing is maddening and the insipid characters forced on us are not worth our attention and time. Are they playing it deadpan or are they really deadbeats? We’ll never know and it doesn’t matter.
“French Exit” is a 2020 comedy-drama directed by Azazel Jacobs, starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Valerie Mahaffey, Imogene Poots and Tracy Letts. Rated R for language and sexual references, it’s run time is 1 hour, 50 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: D. Opened in theaters April 2.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.