Those listless socialites are bad, as far as Azazel Jacobs, director of “French Exit,” thinks. Apparently, they tip well and exhibit some form of a moral compass, but they only do so to distract from the gaping void in their soul. Plus, they set flowers on fire when they tire of waiting. “French Exit” slides all that across the screen, and yet, it still has a soft spot for one socialite in particular, one who’s not entirely unpacked in this messy combination of so-so dialogue and scattered performances.
Michelle Pfeiffer imbues this movie with character, stilting her role as a New York socialite turned penniless Parisian Frances Price. Frances, a lonely woman who brandishes her cheques with a defeated flourish, is listless. Her husband has been dead a few years, and the money has finally run out, so she’s making her exit to France. Yes, there’s little about the film’s plot that can’t be deduced from its title.
Frances, who plans to kill herself when the very last penny vanishes, is written with one foot in the grave, as is Malcolm Price (Lucas Hedges), her 20-something son. Resuscitating Frances requires Pfeiffer’s nimble wielding of a passé comedy and an independence that appears to be a brand of femininity but is actually a brash poignancy.
Malcolm wears his hair like a young Trump, letting it hang long with a matte slick that borders on greasy, grazing on an air of disregard for his appearances. He’s rich, and trying to look good is beneath him. Why make an effort whatsoever? The script feels the same way about itself, leeching off the glam of its cast for substance. Malcolm is complacent in life, raised in an apartment that looks like a hotel and in the stuffy private schools of the East Coast. “French Exit,” a mediocre mix of unweighted dialogue, is complacent with the easy life as well.
Hedges, in a film that so desperately leans on its cast for tang — similar to the way Frances leans on money for vitality — drops the ball. Where Frances knows her time is up, Hedges resigns himself to a character that’s neither interesting nor sad. Malcolm is just there, taking his cues from a dead father who was never present either. The show must go on in this depressive tale, and Hedges trudges forward without imagination.
Malcolm is a dependent and (formerly) wealthy man-child with no prospects, and Malcolm’s girlfriend, Susan (Imogen Poots, tragically wasted), tells him as much over lunch. Poots, fresh off a strong role in “The Father,” finds a shabby script here, but, like most of this ensemble, pulls out her own resourcefulness to turn around a lackluster character.
Early in the film, Frances says she’ll “miss this” — this as in being rich — during her last night in New York. She and Malcolm set sail aboard a cruise ship the next day, the ritzy transatlantic kind that accumulates two bodies a day from an elderly clientele. Everything in her life must have its correct, refined place to be stowed, and she herself stows away to France, living out her final dollars in a borrowed apartment.
That’s what makes this movie so stiflingly neat. It also feels a need for everything to have its prescribed spot. A gigolo joke here, courtesy of a blank clairvoyant (Danielle Macdonald) and undercut by an humorless camera. Sadness there, via the even lonelier socialite Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey). On the closet shelves, meticulously placed handbags, as if staged for an open house. Front and center, cash in perfect stacks that shrink with clockwork regularity. Ultimately, loss; not death, but an assigned realization of life articulated by Pfeiffer.
Aboard its own gilded vehicle, “French Exit” departs a potholed highway for a bland desert road, the drab stillness of which is interrupted by the lively shadows of Pfeiffer’s performance. By accident, Jacobs made a film that replicates the hollow life of the elite. Come for Pfeiffer, but stay to shut your brain off with ultra-refined reality television best seen over a bowl of ice cream.
Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].