- Sony Pictures Classics
Occasionally, the worst choice a story can make is to suggest that it's deeper than it is. There's plenty of room in the world for weird momentary diversions without a pretense in their heads of offering real insight, character depth or Significance. A hundred minutes or so of chuckles can suffice.
I wish French Exit had been the kind of movie content to present frivolity, because as long as it's doing so, it's a hell of a lot of fun. And then, foolishly, it overreaches. Even keeping in mind that this is adapted by screenwriter Patrick DeWitt from his own novel—and is an adaptation that apparently makes at least one significant change from the source material—French Exit doesn't do itself any favors by throwing over its superficial pleasures for an attempt at profundity that isn't really there.
The set-up finds widowed New York socialite Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) faced with what amounts to her as an existential crisis: Her financial advisor informs her that she's broke. Forced to sell all of her remaining assets, Frances jumps on a transatlantic cruise ship with her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), the final destination being the Paris apartment of a friend. All she brings along is all the remaining cash she has left to live on, and a black cat who might have a ... unique quality.
- Sony Pictures Classics
Most of what follows is purely episodic, and built more around individual bits than any grand plan. On the cruise ship taking them from New York to France, Malcolm hooks up with the ship's fortune teller (Danielle Macdonald); he gets a tour of the ship's holding room for dead passengers from the drunken ship's doctor; Frances expresses her displeasure with a surly Parisian waiter by setting the table's flower arrangement on fire. Even when the narrative begins to lean towards farce—as the Paris apartment becomes home base to a growing number of characters, including a private investigator (Isaach de Bankolé), a lonely fellow expatriate (Valerie Mahaffey) and Malcolm's ex-sort-of-fiancée (Imogen Poots)—it's all generally a hoot, delivering a solid string of laughs that work fine for Pfeiffer's broad eccentricity and Hedges' floppy-haired depressiveness.
At some point, however—right around when the cat goes missing, and its true nature becomes the central concern—French Exit starts taking itself quite a bit more seriously. There are closeted skeletons to be revealed, and relationships to be reconciled. The focus turns to why Malcolm seems so unhappy, and the history that shaped his relationship with his mother. Frances' interest in giving large quantities of money to homeless people begins to feel like less of a weird affectation and more of a social statement about why being insolvent might feel to Frances like a reasonable cause for considering suicide. And the more earnestly DeWitt and director Azazel Jacobs start treating their characters' psychologies, the more it starts to feel like a pleasant collection of quirks with delusions of grandeur.
It's not that French Exit couldn't have found valuable things to say about familial dysfunction. There's the potential for poignant back story in the circumstances behind the death of Frances' husband, and the way in which Frances remains unable to fully move on from those circumstances. It just feels weird to turn on a dime towards making these abruptly-not-as-wealthy-as-they-used-to-be people into objects of sympathy, rather than objects of laughter. Right now, we all could use off-beat humor to brighten a day. A reminder that rich people have feelings, too? Not so much.