‘French Exit’ Is a Surreal Comedy That Only Kind of Works | NYFF 2020

If Woody Allen and Wes Anderson had a lovechild, it would be this movie.

“French Exit” is based on the book of the same name by Patrick deWitt, who also wrote the screenplay here. The film stars Michelle Pfeiffer as a New York City socialite who moves with her disaffected son (Lucas Hedges) and cat to Paris with the little money she has left. Azazel Jacobs directs while Tracey Letts and Imogen Poots also star.

Abstract surreal comedies typically aren’t my bag. It’s not that I don’t like silly or intentionally over-the-top humor, but all too often I just find these types of films weird for the sake of being weird. “French Exit” begins as your typical high-society dramedy, but soon turns into something else entirely. I got some chuckles out of it, but Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance is really the main reason to stick around.

Going from Catwoman to cat lady, Pfeiffer plays Frances, a woman who has known a rough marriage and had a late start to a relationship with her son, Malcolm. Frances and Malcolm seem to be more friends than mother-son, having frank conversations and not showing a large amount of emotion towards one another. On the surface, Pfeiffer plays the typical spoiled and out-of-touch rich socialite that we typically see in movies (and real life), but her eyes show a repressed depression, and when no one is looking she does try to do some good (she tries to give her entire remaining money away to a homeless man). It’s a solid performance, and in a year as whacky as this could be enough to land Pfeiffer her fourth Oscar nomination.

Lucas Hedges is fine, but he is kind of just, there. He plays Malcolm as stiff and somewhat removed, as to be expected from a young man who did not know his father, and did not begin to form a relationship with his mother until he was about 12. The rest of the cast is solid, including Tracy Letts with a few funny jabs in a limited role.

The film has some funny moments, and a few plot points that could have gone in more interesting direction but don’t really come to fruition. At a point Frances begins to let people stay in her Paris apartment with her and Malcolm, and the joke is the capacity reaches nearly 10, but they never really do anything with that besides “ha isn’t it funny there’s a lot of people here?”. They could have shown people waiting in line for the bathroom, using the wrong toothbrush, dumb stuff like that, but like a few other things it never really fleshes itself out.

The surreal aspect that comes into play in the third act is also a little odd, because they never explain how or why it is happening, nor do they truly resolve it. I don’t know if this plot point is a spoiler or not (I never read the book so perhaps it is the whole selling point of the story but I won’t say just in case), but I just found the film a little too odd for its own good by the end for not having a great payoff.

“French Exit” is perfectly fine and Michelle Pfeiffer gives a good performance, I just wish I got more out of it. At only 110 minutes it clicks along fast-enough (although there are certainly some dryer moments), but I saw it last night and have already forgotten much of it. If you like B-grade Woody Allen or Wes Anderson then maybe this will be your cup of tea, but otherwise I don’t think it’s anything that demands your immediate attention.

Critics Rating: 6/10

Sony Pictures Classics

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