One of the great appeals of a real ‘French Exit’ is that it allows you to leave an occasion with just good memories of it, getting out of wherever before things start to go downhill. To achieve the same effect with French Exit the film, you’d have to duck out before the opening logos end. This is a film that’s downhill all the way, a painfully unfunny farce filled with unlikeable characters and ‘quirky’ dialogue that makes the whole affair feel like a bad night of student theatre.
Director Azazel Jacobs, whose underrated last film The Lovers unfortunately only saw a UK release at festivals, here adapts Patrick DeWitt’s 2018 novel, with DeWitt himself on script duties, about a New York socialite, Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), who runs out of money and has to move to a friend’s Paris apartment. She’s accompanied by her spoiled son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and a fussy black cat named Small Frank, who is possessed by the spirit of Frances’s late husband.
It’s essentially a story about how delightfully silly the aristocracy is, and if that sounds insufferable on paper, it’s even worse in practice. Jacobs and DeWitt present no reasons for you to remotely care what happens to Frances and Malcolm, but also can’t find laughs in their hatefulness. Smug quasi-jokes hang heavy in the air, conversations pausing to make room for laughter that never comes, while Pfeiffer and Hedges flounder with their grating dialogue, neither one of them able to get anything out of the material.
Pfeiffer is miscast – you need someone with more venom and less of a movie star glow to pull this role off – and Hedges fumbles with the kind of sarcasm-heavy role that he should be able to do in his sleep by now. He’s leaden in moments of would-be comedy, yet seems to be barely stifling a laugh during dramatic exchanges, as if he’s suddenly realised the mistake he’s made in signing on to this film.
Around this pair swirls absurdity for absurdity’s sake, from the possessed cat to a fortune teller who can genuinely contact the dead to a giggling American expat in Paris who keeps a dildo in her freezer. None of this stuff ends up as funny, or even particularly diverting – once the initial shock of the horribly written dialogue wears off, French Exit just becomes exceedingly boring. What may have been charming in the pages of the novel is flat and annoying on screen, leaving the actors with little more to do than grin and bear it. Outside of Pfeiffer and Hedges, French Exit also manages to waste Imogen Poots and Isaach de Bankole, though Tracy Letts gets out with a little more dignity intact.
It would be hard to think of another film from the last 12 months that fails as completely as French Exit does to read the room. The trifling worries of the super-rich (even as Frances ‘goes broke’, she has a large apartment to live in and tens of thousands of euros in cash) and their annoying friends don’t look ridiculous so much as enraging after a year in which the wealthy managed to steal more money than ever from a populace contending with non-stop crisis. This poor timing isn’t French Exit’s most fundamental problem, but it does make its shoddy script and feeble acting that much more offensive, a screwball comedy that forgets to be either fun or funny.