Michelle Pfeiffer epitomizes imperious, icy hauteur in “French Exit,” a comic drama (or, more precisely, melancholy comedy) set in the reality-adjacent world of world weary jet-setters with more ennui than sense.
Pfeiffer’s character, Frances Price, has been living off her late husband’s inheritance for several years, a state of suspended animation that has extended to her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges).
Her retirement plan, as she informs a financial adviser, was to “die before the money ran out.” But run out the money has, and here she is: alive, attractive and facing immediate penury unless she comes up with a scheme.
At no point in “French Exit” is it suggested that young Malcolm should get – what’s that called again? – a job. Quel horreur! Instead, Frances and Son set off for France, where they’ll pursue their lifestyle of exquisite taste and graceful mooching while living in the apartment of a well-to-do friend.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs and written by Patrick DeWitt (adapting his own novel), “French Exit” exists in a world that might have sprung fully formed from the quirkiest recesses of Wes Anderson’s imagination, with drops of DNA from Whit Stillman’s WASP catalog and Buñuel’s absurdism.
The casually tossed-off insults, morbid asides, petty bon mots and arch affectations toe a treacherous line, constantly threatening to become insufferable. But a goofy strain of humble humanism manages to keep the self-consciously mannered house of cards from collapsing from its own pretensions.
Hedges plays his admittedly sketchy part with the knowingness of someone who understands the world “French Exit” inhabits: a shabbily genteel universe of elegant oddballs whose connection to recognizable real life becomes more attenuated the longer they stick around.
(Those oddballs are portrayed by a wonderful cast of supporting players, including Susan Coyne and Isaach de Bankolé, as well as a spectacular black cat that may or may not embody the soul of Frances’s late husband.)
But it’s Pfeiffer – and the funny, generous, cruel and bluntly confrontational Frances – who takes firm possession of “French Exit” and never lets go. Along with 2017’s “Where is Kyra?,” “French Exit” winds up being a heady celebration of late-career Pfeiffer, which might be the best Pfeiffer to date.
She’s still an astonishing beauty, but now that her looks have been tempered by time, she’s newly liberated to prove what a gifted actress she’s been all along.
Indeed, Pfeiffer’s earthy authenticity is often at odds with the stylized artifice that keeps accruing in “French Exit,” a tonal mélange that Jacobs handles with his usual dexterity. (He has proved his lovable-eccentric bona fides in gems such as “Momma’s Man” and “Terri.”)
When slapstick and screwball take over, it’s a game of diminishing returns. There are times when “French Exit” beggars belief and tries the viewer’s patience. But as long as the camera stays on Pfeiffer, we’re all hers.
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