A tonally confused misfire featuring a sterling Michelle Pfeiffer, “French Exit” depicts how extreme wealth can warp the psyche and prevent one from living happily. It is a promising movie weakened by quirk overload and inadequate character development.
The film (opening Friday at the Embarcadero and other theaters) is directed by Azazel Jacobs and written by Patrick deWitt, who wrote Jacobs’ sensitive misfit-teen tale, “Terri.” Based on deWitt’s novel, the less nuanced “French Exit” has the potential to succeed as a social satire, dark comic farce, or mother-son journey, but too often, eccentricity upstages deeper material.
Pfeiffer plays Frances, a self-centered, wealthy widow and Manhattan socialite who is notorious for her outrageous behavior, like going on a ski vacation immediately after discovering her dead husband’s body, without reporting the corpse.
Since that time, Frances has extravagantly spent her entire inheritance. She’s “insolvent,” she tells her 20-something son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), dragging out that word dramatically.
Frances neglected Malcolm when he was a boy, until one day, she yanked him out of boarding school, as if in need of a companion. They now share a townhouse, and Frances disparages Malcolm’s relationship with fiancee Susan (Imogen Poots). (“Oh, to be youngish and in loveish.”)
Broke, Frances sells her possessions and relocates to Paris, taking bundles of cash and Malcolm, who abandons Susan, with her. Their cat, Little Frank, too, is aboard. Frances believes that the cat contains the spirit of her dead husband, and, on the transatlantic cruise ship, Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), a fortune teller, senses something similar.
Mother and son settle into a spacious Parisian apartment provided by Frances’ friend Joan (Susan Coyne), and the cat soon runs off. Distressed, Frances hires a private investigator (Isaach De Bankole). Before long, all of the characters mentioned above, along with Susan’s new beau (Daniel di Tomasso) and a lonely widow named Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey) are occupying the apartment. Madeleine conducts seances, and the cat speaks, voiced by Tracy Letts.
More worrisomely, Frances has been giving away large wads of cash to strangers. This seems due less to generosity than to a wish to die.
Pfeiffer is terrific. Frances is a full-force personality who is entertaining even when the screenplay lets her down. (At one point, she’s sharpening kitchen knives in the middle of the night.) When she cracks a bit in the final act, she reveals just enough humanity to enable us to feel good about going the distance with her.
Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t give Pfeiffer or her capable costars much chance to impress us emotionally. Unlike the quirky characters in the films of Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, or Miranda July, these people are too one-dimensional to come across as much more than the sum of their eccentricities.
As wacky particulars — seances, the talking cat, a frozen dildo — dominate the plot, the film can’t do justice to its more serious subjects.
It is a sometimes flat and sometimes satisfying dark souffle, overall.
Among the supporting cast, Mahaffey shines as the lonely widow who wants Frances to be her friend.
Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Valerie Mahaffey, Imogen Poots
Written by: Patrick deWitt
Directed by: Azazel Jacobs
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes