Michelle Pfeiffer overdoes it in French Exit, which fails to draw laughs or tears.
Michelle Pfeiffer makes a bid to become the next great gay icon in French Exit, one of those camp-inflected dramedies that makes advanced gum disease seem tempting by comparison.
Pfeiffer, delivering every line in a Cruella de Vil/Bette Davis tone of weary condescension, plays Frances Price, a New York celebrity aristocrat who is rapidly running out of money. Selling her last remaining possessions, she packs up a black cat, a bag full of cash, and her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and takes the lot to Paris, where she hopes her life runs out before her money does. “I wanna see the Eiffel Tower, then die,” she declares. She does a lot of drinking and smoking and gesturing extravagantly, usually all at the same time. The level of vamping she exhibits is such that Norma Desmond could watch her and think, “Maybe dial it back a little, honey.” A quantity theory of acting skill has taken hold among critics, and so this performance is guaranteed to be praised for giving us a huge amount of capital-A Acting.
Hedges, who has developed something of a specialty in playing emotionally hollowed-out sons of privilege, has the thankless task of spending the movie standing by like Auntie Mame’s hapless nephew, providing an audience for Mother’s various outrages and insults. So gelatinous is his personality that when his mother says she’s selling her property and moving them both to Paris, he — a grown man! — simply tells his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots) the news and meekly goes along.
Later, we learn of a love triangle involving the two of them and a rich but dull banker boy who would like to marry Susan; but if the other guy offers her nothing but boredom, he’s offering considerably more than Malcolm, whose personality is like a large bucket of vapor. A fellow who spends all of his time either hanging out with or talking about his mother is probably not much interested in having a girlfriend in the first place. Not that a young lady who looks like Imogen Poots would have a whole lot of patience for a woebegone nonentity such as Malcolm. We are meant to believe that after a typically underperforming phone call from this single-celled organism of a man, she’d hop on a plane and dash into his arms in Paris. I think not: Most young ladies require their swains to have a pulse.
Your enjoyment of the entire first half of the film will depend on whether you find the antics of old Mrs. Frances Price to be hysterically funny or merely annoying. Heh, heh, watch her be snooty to a cop who is trying to be helpful. Watch her set a vase of flowers on fire in a café because she doesn’t like the waiter. Discussing the odd circumstances of her husband’s demise, to which she responded by flying off to Vail while his corpse lay hardening on their bed, she blithely says, “I found him but then I left the body for . . . a little while.” Delightful dame? No, more like toxic femininity. I can’t imagine that any guy who owns fewer than ten Madonna albums is going to find her shtick funny.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs from a script by Patrick DeWitt (based on his novel), the film is content to bump along with wacky set pieces that aren’t funny before pivoting into supernatural crapola in the second hour. Frances’s cat, it turns out, is hosting the spirit of her dead husband (voiced by Tracy Letts), and thanks to the intervention of a psychic (Danielle Macdonald) whom Malcolm met on a cruise across the Atlantic, it turns out to be possible to chat with the spirit of the dead man. Alas, as in the rest of the script, even when there’s a dead guy speaking up, no one has anything interesting to say.
Worse, in the final act of the film the material tries to wring some tears out of the audience. This is a classic gambit of the camp sensibility, and the least attractive aspect of it. Frances pees on everyone else’s misery (when she meets a perfectly nice woman who lost her husband when he choked to death, she considers this a funny detail, and makes a joke about it), but we’re supposed to feel something for her. Sorry, Cruella. No sale.