Michelle Pfeiffer can do almost no wrong on screen, in my view, and I’m going to declare that it’s not her fault that the new film “French Exit” suffers from overambition and a trace of boredom despite her still-electrifying presence.
Not that she doesn’t lean into the role of Frances Price with considerable verve. A lifelong New York socialite, Frances is devastated to learn that her late husband has left her with little more than massive debts. She will have to immediately leave her tony penthouse and move—somewhere. She chooses France, because why not?
And so onto a boat she and teenage son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) go, in a reverse odyssey away from the Statue of Liberty back to the Old Country. The film shines strongest on this middle passage, where Malcolm befriends a mysterious American named Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald, who was so amazing in “Patti Cake$” a few years back). Madeleine has something Malcolm quite put his finger on, but spends perhaps too little time considering what that might be as Madeleine quickly whisks him to her cabin.
Mother and son disembark in Europe, and their new life in France involves Madeleine and her circle. For Madeleine, you see, is a medium, and able to communicate with those no longer of this earthly realm (this then is her “something”). Frances senses an opportunity to have a seance with her late husband Franklin (voiced by Tracy Letts), to ask him all of those unanswered questions.
It’s at this point that the film largely stalls out. If Frances is effectively escaping her old life, then why such an emphasis on communing with the dead? Leave the past alone and allow her character to grow.
It’s a testament to Pfeiffer’s talents that despite the seeming moral vacancy that lies at Frances’s center, she nonetheless earns our sympathies. Pfeiffer, wonderfully beautiful and charming as ever at 62, imbues Frances with not so much desperation as an unassailable belief in her own destiny. Surely, France will be better for her. After all, she can reinvent herself there, perhaps, and dammit, she believes she deserves it.
Azazel Jacobs directs from a screenplay by Patrick DeWitt, who adapted his book of the same name. I greatly admired Jacobs’ brilliant “The Lovers” in 2017, but in “French Exit” his touch is less assured and his wry observations of human foibles less on point. Something is missing, and no amount of seances will find it.
Now playing in select theaters.