Synopsis: An aging Manhattan socialite living on what’s barely left of her inheritance moves to a small apartment in Paris with her son and cat.
Stars: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts, Valerie Mahaffey, Susan Coyne, Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Running Length: 110 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: I’d seen Grease 2 several dozen times before I ever knew there was a Grease. My counting skills aside, to this day I’ll still go to the mat for the cult-favorite silly sequel to one of the biggest movie musical hits of all time. Yes, I know that you have thoughts about it and want to defend the legacy of Travolta and Newton-John but from my earliest days all I knew was that the leads of Grease 2 were the most beautiful people in the world, and wouldn’t it be nice if we were all friends? All these years later I’m still a devoted fan of Michelle Pfeiffer (and Maxwell Caulfield appears to be living his best life too) so will always be excited when a new Pfeiffer pfilm comes our way. The bonus in 2020 was that her newest was generating the type of early buzz that suggested this could be Pfeiffer’s year to return to the awards circuit.
Writing this nearly a week after the Oscars, I think back to when I originally saw French Exit and held out hope that Michelle Pfeiffer might wind up with her first nomination in nearly thirty years. While the resulting film may not have fallen into line with the titles Pfeiffer was associated with in the early days of her prestigious career, the performance she gave in it pulsated with just the kind of eccentric vibrancy that usually gets noticed by voters. Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt and adapted by the author himself, this film is out there, to put it mildly, and Pfeiffer’s darkly funny and brittle socialite is the nucleus the entire action swirls around.
Rich NYC widow Frances Price (Pfeiffer, mother!) has almost run out of money after not doing much of anything since her grossly affluent husband (Tracy Letts, Lady Bird) died twelve years prior. Never bothering to work or pass along a sense of wealth management to her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back), mother and child find themselves in a bind when told they have a limited amount of funds to work with. Neither has any particular talent or skill so their options are limited if they want to stay in their tony Manhattan digs. Deciding its better to leave on top and wanting more time to figure out a plan, Frances sells almost everything they own and cashes out their accounts before anyone can come to collect on the bills that have been piling up.
Traveling by sea with a pile of dough and avoiding unnecessary customs questions in the process, the duo (along with Small Frank, their unique cat) travel to Paris. On the way over, Malcolm has an intimate encounter with a kooky medium (a very fine Danielle Macdonald, I Am Woman, continuing a trend of being an MVP in a cast of strong supporting players) that can spot death, which tends to get her into trouble on a cruise made up of largely elderly passengers. After arriving in Paris and ensconcing themselves in the flat of an old friend of Frances, there isn’t much to do but sit and wait for what comes next. But what comes next?
That’s where French Exit gets its foot stuck in the door and never manages to wedge itself out. DeWitt’s novel is a surreal bit of frivolity that involves a surprise twist I won’t reveal here but when it’s uncovered it moves the film from deadpan humor to a new level of cosmic comedy that not everyone is going to be able to roll with.
Perhaps they’ll find some diversion in Valerie Mahaffey’s (Sully) side-splitting turn as a zany widow desperate for friends who lures Frances and Malcom to a Christmas party under false pretenses. Mahaffrey is a veteran character actress that’s as underrated as they come and it’s a shame the film didn’t heat up for Pfeiffer because I’d expect if it had then Mahaffrey would also have gotten recognized for her scene-stealing work. Had the film only added Mahaffrey’s character to the mix it may have remained in a comfortably droll zone that reveled in its quirky charm but instead it continues to add multiple characters, few of whom are actually interesting or integral to the central figures of the plot. Besides Hedges, on his second crazy cruise movie of 2020 after Let Them All Talk, who is unusually uncomfortable looking, the remaining cast (including Green Room’s Imogen Poots) feels like they are always annoyingly elbowing to get at a spot at the table next to the star of the film.
It all comes down to Pfeiffer, though, and director Azazel Jacobs capably brings out a wicked twinkle we haven’t seen in quite some time. Reveling in reciting DeWitt’s biting dialogue and rolling her eyes whenever Mahaffrey’s character is trying to ingratiate herself to Frances, Pfeiffer has spoken about her affinity for this project, and it shows. While it didn’t propel her to the finish line for any statuettes when the year was wrapped, it garnered her some of the best notices she’s received in a number of years. There’s a reason Pfeiffer has had a lasting career in Hollywood and French Exit is a solid reminder of why she continues to surprise us.