Movies directed by Woody Allen have fallen out of favor in recent years as the man himself has been increasingly shunned in the #MeToo era. But the style that the writer/director perfected in movies like Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Bullets Over Broadway has remained a draw for filmmakers, who often view his dry humor and witty repartee as something to be admired and emulated.
That spirit, if not success, is alive in French Exit, in which Michelle Pfeiffer stars as Frances Price, a wealthy widow whose poor financial planning has left her and her adult son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), on the brink of being broke. As a means of burying her head in the sand, Frances leaves New York for Paris with Malcolm, continuing to spend freely despite the fact that she should be saving every penny she can.
Neither Frances nor Malcolm seem to know how to interact with general society, and yet because of their oddness, they attract a variety of people in Paris, all of whom for some reason wind up staying in their small apartment. Oh, and there’s a black cat that Frances seems to think is the reincarnation of her dead husband, Franklin (Tracy Letts), an animal that she alternately shuns and pines over.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs and adapted by Patrick DeWitt from his own novel, the film is at first mildly enjoyable because of the quirkiness of its lead characters. Few actors play haughty as well as Pfeiffer, and so even though her character is not relatable for 99 percent of society, the way she plays Frances is interesting enough to be engaging. Hedges’ character is more clueless than anything else, but his relationship with his mother and his neurotic fiancee, Susan (Imogen Poots), make you want to see where he’ll end up.
But the lack of emotion or “normal” responses by both Frances and Malcolm wears thin after the first half hour or so, and what the film is left with are characters who are not fun to be around and a story that is haphazard at best. Side plots that go nowhere involve a fake medium played by Danielle Macdonald, a lonely Paris neighbor played by Valerie Mahaffey, and a private investigator Isaach De Bankole. By the time the film gets to a seance where they speak with the long-dead Franklin, things have gone thoroughly off the rails.
Pfeiffer is one of those actors who you’re always happy to see, even if the material she’s performing isn’t up to her talents. This is her first step outside of being a supporting character in the Disney/Marvel universe in a few years, and she proves she’s still capable of commanding the screen. Hedges is okay, but he’d do well to find roles that allow him to express more emotion, as a monotone part like this does him no favors.
Eccentric movies like French Exit can work, but only if the filmmakers maintain some sort of connection to reality. There’s very little, if anything, for moviegoers to hold on to in this story, and so it comes off as just a lot of weirdness for weirdness’ sake.
French Exit opens in theaters on April 2.