There are some performers that never get their due. For years, Michelle Pfeiffer has been one of them. Despite switching off between critical darlings and populist showcases, Pfeiffer elevated nearly every film for a decade. Just as suddenly as she burst on the screen, she found herself in mediocre films that looked good on paper. Pfeiffer never disappeared, but she never returned to her peak star power. In recent years, the hope for a Pfeiffer resurgence has been palpable in the film world. With French Exit, the wait is over. Pfeiffer not only turns in a career-best performance, but her gravitational pull saves a frustrating group of characters from a mediocre film.
French Exit follows mother Frances Price (Pfeiffer) and her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) as they leave New York City. Frances has run out of money, so she decides to sell her possessions and flee to Paris. Malcolm follows his mother, despite his recent engagement to Susan (Imogen Poots). On the ship to Paris, Malcolm meets a young clairvoyant Madeline (Danielle Macdonald), who recognizes something special about the Price’s cat. When the cat goes missing in Paris, the Prices assemble a quirky group to help find the feline.
Pfeiffer owns the screen from the first to the last moments of French Exit. As much a comedic showcase as a dramatic one, Pfeiffer stuns with her total control of the material. Her razor-sharp wit leads to incredible exchanges throughout the film, bending lesser men to her will. The veteran actress keys in on Frances’ unpredictable nature, and channels it through every mannerism and expression. Yet bubbling beneath the surface is clear emotional turmoil. You understand how French Exit‘s rather silly turns are merely obstacles for the other characters to find themselves in Frances’ good graces. It’s a magnetic, unflinching performance that pushes Pfeiffer into the conversation for the best performance of the year.
Director Azazel Jacobs draws heavily from the socialite film handbook. The characters on screen are rather typical of their social class, and could easily be seen interacting with the characters of a Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, or Metropolitan. The absurdity of privilege is in full display, but Jacobs recognizes this rather early on. Despite the oddity of how his characters spend money, treat government officials, or speak about each other, Jacobs makes sure to deliver silliness at every turn. His masterful use of pace and editing helps to get the most out of the many jokes on the page. He even delivers on extra gags through his visual control.
Despite this, there are times where Jacob’s cast feels flat. Pfeiffer’s performance injects energy at every turn and only a few cast members meet that energy. Hedges loses much of his charm and charisma that have made him a positive for most films. Instead, it feels like he was asked to turn-in a Jessie Eisenberg impression, which he accomplishes to varying levels of success. French Exit features too many insane one-liners to be filled with subdued and restrained characters. Jacobs needed to break his performers out of this spell but instead seemed to encourage them in this frustrating direction.
Other actors excel with this style. Valerie Mahaffey excels as Madame Reynard, a Parisian with an interest in becoming Frances’ friend. Mahaffey willingly sells the pratfalls and verbal antics that cause characters to mock her. Yet her genuine and authentic behavior pave the road for the other characters to embrace her. Macdonald plays into the oddity of her mentalist nature, but the character could easily be from another narrative. When given small moments, Macdonald knocks them out of the park, but there are few reasons to believe this character would be drawn into the Price’s drama.
The screenplay offers plenty of humor and some true heart as well. Patrick Dewitt adapts his own novel to great success, but some moments feel more literary than cinematic. The love triangles that revolve around Malcolm do not work, in part because there’s little reason for us to believe Malcolm would be appealing to one character, let alone two. Characters interact like they’re from different planets and the pithy dialogue does little to tie them together. It also leads the film to an odd position, where it is neither a straight farce about the privilege given to the characters, but it is also willing to make dozens of jokes at the character’s defense. It’s a shortcoming that becomes exacerbated by the directing, and it leaves French Exit with some truly frustrating moments.
All told, Pfieffer is worth the price of admission for French Exit. Her marvelous turn will likely find attraction in the awards race, and may even find itself in the driver’s seat. Yet a weaker film around her cannot be ignored. With some miscasting and other seemingly random characters, French Exit never lives up to what could have been. Instead, it comes across as a half-hearted commentary, despite some excellent emotional beats.
ALAN FRENCH’S RATING FOR FRENCH EXIT IS A 6 OUT OF 10.