Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer, still luminous at 62) doesn't have a filter and lives in a world where bitterness and money can be best friends all the time. If you invited her to a party with good intentions, she would say something to hurt your feelings inside 60 seconds. But somehow, her loyal son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), forgives her for all the bumpy faults -- even though Frances keeps the mysterious circumstances of his father's (Tracy Letts) death guarded from him. A troubled kid who bypassed the end of innocence at an early age for early onset alcoholism, he's an adult lost in a world that is much harsher outside his mother's realm.
Often feeling a relentless need to break other people down, she is woefully ignorant about her lavish lifestyle and finds her rich inheritance now depleted. When told by her accountant that she is broke, Frances agrees to illegally sell all her pricey belongings for a bag of cash. Imagine giving someone the house and everything in it for a leather bag of Franklins -- and moving to Paris.
"French Exit," directed by Jewish director Azazel Jacobs and adapted by Patrick DeWitt's book (by the author himself), explores the final days of Frances, who flirts with the idea of taking her own life when she is not mercilessly insulting and judging everyone around her. The audience doesn't get to know her too well until the film's second act, which sees mother and son seek pity at a friend's apartment. All the while, young Malcolm seeks romance in his own life with Susan (Imogen Potts), but can't break away from bitter old Frances.
Here's the thing: You will spend most of this 112 minute film trying to find a way to like Pfeiffer's irrefutable old queen and come up empty in the end. Played to the hilt and back by the actress, the movie gets weird halfway through and it's not even funny. The humor here is a Wes Anderson steak cooked so dry that the flavor just disappears from the jokes once they leave the screen.
It is a thrill to see the actress at the top of her game after a period away from cinema. Frances is a role center-cut for someone who knows how to load up a line of dialogue like a dealer would a deck of cards on a table full of millions. The only worth in seeing this film to the end is wondering if her venomous widow will actually go through with it. Pfeiffer keeps you invested somehow.
Hedges, one of the movie's brightest young stars, has literally nothing to do here yet look perplexed -- like a lost puppy overworking the pout muscle. He's not miscast here; the versatile actor just doesn't do much with the material given. If he had, the movie would have been a lot different. Maybe not.
After all, this is DeWitt's world, where the eccentricity and overall quirkiness is cranked up to a 12 for the entire film. That can eat some actors up and it can alienate an audience without the right tone. "French Exit" suffers a disconnect with its audience, and the tedious pacing is among the worst I have seen over at least five years. I wanted to get out of my couch car and help push this car down the road to a nearby gas station. Change the oil, air up the tires, and splash some paint on there maybe. Not too much though.
Jacobs' film already has a lot of colorful characters, like a Robert Altman movie cued up on a Woody Allen set, which would crack the nuance levels in half. I didn't find this particular world inviting, even if Jacobs is a thoughtful director who likes to pull from his own childhood life -- one that included not a sense of morality. The son of a director, he may know a life of leisure to be an often unpleasant one-or he just wanted to flip the coin on its other side. Maybe next time he captures it more clearly and finds a way to build that bridge to more viewers.
This all comes off as a "please care about the rich and their feelings, even if they wasted all their money on nothing" party. I was invited but didn't care for the evening.
Michelle Pfeiffer makes this one passable--barely. She holds your attention until the end, keeping it from Rottenville.
French Exit" opened in theaters Friday in St. Louis, including the Hi-Pointe and Landmark Plaza Frontenac.