Dir: Azazel Jacobs. Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Valerie Mahaffey, Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald, Isaach De Bankolé, Susan Coyne, Tracy Letts. 15 cert, 110 min
“Ah, to be youngish and in love-ish,” purrs Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit, a feeble-ish, annoying-ish adaptation of a successful-ish 2018 novel by Patrick deWitt. In her most prominent role for at least a decade, Pfeiffer plays Frances Price, an ageing Manhattan socialite, and her adult son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) is the target of this waspish aside.
Malcolm is engaged to his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots), but he isn’t champing at the bit to leave the family home, where he and his mother have been living in a state of directionless ease, sustained by her late husband’s nest-egg. Not for much longer, though.
“My plan was to die before the money ran out,” Frances tells her financial adviser, when he reveals her accounts have finally been drained dry. “But I kept and keep on not dying, and” – she pauses to savour this misfortune, as if swirling brandy – “here I am.” Her solution is to sell her belongings and relocate with Malcolm to a friend’s apartment in Paris. It’s a stopgap solution, though Frances’s fatalistic air suggests she doesn’t believe she has much gap left to stop.
The film, which was directed by Azazel Jacobs and scripted by deWitt himself, starts as a mother-son character study, then transforms into a whimsical ensemble piece as various supporting eccentrics affix themselves to the duo. It’s the kind of format that works as long as the characters aren’t all completely unbearable – which is, alas, not the case here.
The thought of Pfeiffer as a vinegary matriarch is vastly more appealing than the eye-rolling, lip-curling cartoon character she ends up playing here, in a performance so effortfully ripe, it borders on drag-queeny. And Hedges’s Malcolm is such a charmless mope, even the way he buttons his shirts becomes a source of aggravation: a reason is given in the script, but that doesn’t excuse it.
Helping them settle is Valerie Mahaffey’s Madame Reynard, a lonely, fragile widow the film keeps laughing up its sleeve about, while Hedges has a love interest of sorts in Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), a surly fortune-teller he meets and sleeps with on the Atlantic crossing. (Of course they get to France via cruise ship.) When Frances’s pet cat, Small Frank, runs off one day, it’s the psychically gifted Madeleine whom she enlists to find him via a séance – though Frances has to hire a detective, played by Isaach De Bankolé, to find Madeleine first.
There is a supernatural dimension to the cat’s role in Frances’s life, and while the specifics probably count as a spoiler, the bigger surprise is how matter-of-factly the film ends up dramatising it. But while the take-it-or-leave-it shrug of the séance sequences is the kind of tonal left-turn that in a novel might feel downright impish, enacted on screen it only becomes a test of the audience’s credulity and patience. The recent adaptation of deWitt’s Western novel, The Sisters Brothers, struck this mood of meta-mischief more pleasingly: you often felt as if that film was leading you on, but never sending you up.
When French Exit, the novel, was published three years ago, it was widely compared to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums: in motion-picture form, the comparison is even more obvious and significantly less flattering. Like Anderson’s idiosyncratic Manhattanite clan, the Prices are a family that create their own private world, into which passers-by and hangers-on can find themselves swept up, if only for a spell.
But it’s a dim, dreary place you’d want to slink away from as soon as you’d got there: Frances and Malcolm’s privilege might be its own kind of prison, but spending time with them shouldn’t feel like a sentence.
In cinemas from Friday