Although her financial advisor has been warning her for years, widowed Manhattan socialite Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) is surprised to learn she is insolvent. ‘What should I do?’ she asks him. The answer arrives at a swanky lunch when, guessing at her troubles, friend Joan (Susan Coyne) offers her Parisian apartment, currently sitting empty and so Frances, her oddball engaged son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, on another transatlantic crossing with an older female relative) and their black cat Small Frank make a “French Exit.”
Laura's Review: B
After giving a juicy and unprecedented supporting performance in Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” Michelle Pfeiffer goes one better here, creating a uniquely complicated woman, one incapable of managing money but no pushover, an exemplar of ‘the rich are different,’ haughtily Patrician yet never snobbish, a woman both down to earth and capable of wielding power over someone less fortunate. Hers is the type of performance that had me laughing at the sheer outrageousness of her expressive interpretations. Working with his “Terri” screenwriter Patrick DeWitt, who adapted his own book, director Azazel Jacobs ("Momma's Man," "The Lovers") has fashioned something akin to a Wes Anderson movie without the twee production design crossed with one of Woody Allen’s jaunts into the more supernatural side of show biz.
Mother and son’s relationship is drawn in quick strokes, Malcolm having little idea of her until she swooped in and took him out of boarding school around the time of his father’s death twelve years prior. Frances considers him ‘youngish and in-love-ish,’ Malcolm having been unable to tell her he is engaged to Susan (Imogen Poots), who believes him too much under his mother’s thumb. This is proven when he informs her he will be leaving for France the next day with no idea of his return. (Upon their arrival in Paris, when Malcolm reminds Frances that it is Christmas Eve, we next see her looking at a toy truck in a shop window, later arriving huffing and puffing at the door with an old school belled bicycle which Malcolm rides around the apartment.)
At the onset of their transatlantic voyage, we quickly glean that the preternaturally contained Small Frank is the reincarnation of Franklin Prince (voice of Tracy Letts), something fortune teller Madeleine the Medium (Danielle Macdonald), who enjoys a quick fling with Malcolm, immediately senses. When Madeleine’s thrown in the brig for allegedly causing the death of a passenger by predicting it, Malcolm learns from the ship’s boozy doctor that crossings like these generally average two bodies a day, his morgue environment an unwelcome reminder of Frank’s body’s treatment after his death.
Once settled at Joan’s, Frances responds to a Christmas party invite from Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey) only to learn they are the only guests. Initially chilly, Frances warms up after an admonishment from Malcolm who is amused and intrigued after discovering a dildo in Reynard’s freezer. Later, Malcolm returns to the apartment after a distressing call to Susan and finds Small Frank grappling his mother’s arm. The cat runs out, so they hire a detective, Julius (Isaach De Bankolé), to find Madeleine in order to find the cat. By the time Joan arrives unexpectedly, she finds a full house, Susan arriving with her current beau, Tom (Daniel di Tomasso) right on her heels, and several relationships are forged or resolved. And we sense that Frances will be just fine, even though she has, once again, reached the end of her cash flow (French waiters, at least the ones not terrorized by her, and all types of trades people and homeless men, continually inform her she’s given them too much money.)
There are many odd zigs and zags throughout “French Exit” giving it a bit of screwball charm. Jacobs’ direction of his actors is what most recalls Anderson, a certain style of deadpan delivery heightening the hilarity. There are some unfortunate lapses of dialogue, though, especially after Small Frank takes off. The film also seems to run out of gas at the end, collapsing in a large gathering of quirky characters in a too small space, but the journeys that have gotten them there are well worth taking.
Sony Picture Classics releases "French Exit" on 2/12/2021, but it is only getting a limited theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles. Starting April 2, 2021, the movie will be released everywhere.