Review: The characters of ‘French Exit’ are ‘as dry as the on-screen martinis’

Natalie Duerr, news correspondent

Taking a peek into the garish lifestyles of the upper class is always fun. The iconic marble staircases, grandiose foyers and hauteur outfits are foreign concepts to most of the world. “French Exit” starts with the infamous Frances (Michelle Pfieffer) and her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) living an upper-class life. That is, until it all crumbles when Frances runs out of the money left by her late husband. There is a sense of schadenfreude, the pleasure of watching others suffer, as the audience watches the mother and son figure out their new normal. If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Comedies such as “Arrested Development” and “Schitt’s Creek” have found success in a storyline just like this.

Unlike those well-received shows, however, the characters in “French Exit” are unlikable and impossible to latch onto. Before leaving New York City to live in Frances’ friend Parisian apartment, Frances declares, “My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept and keep on not dying.” As the mother and son trade in their remaining possession for stacks of euros and board a cruise ship to Paris, the hourglass turns and the audience watches them burn through their remaining money. She pays for a coffee with a 100 euro note and even hands thousands to a person experiencing homelessness. Her actions beg the question — is she looking for an excuse to make her own, literal french exit? Though a clear demonstration of her depression and desire to end her own life, it is hard to garner sympathy because the character is written so poorly. It seems that the only reason she feels this way is because she selfishly cannot live without exuberant wealth.

On top of their money problems, Frances and Malcolm collect a posse of eccentric friends along the way: a clairvoyant “witch,” Malcolm’s ex-fiancée who follows him to Paris with her new fiancé, a fellow widower who is a fan of Frances’ and more. While interesting on the surface, these characters are just caricatures of caricatures — so far removed from real people, they don’t know how to be people themselves. The assemblage of peculiar characters may have felt right in writing, but on-screen, their weirdness is nothing more than a pile of oddities that just doesn’t add up.

The best part of “French Exit” is easily Pfieffer’s performance. She plays Frances as cold and steely on the outside, but vulnerable and soft underneath her campy fur coat. Her captivating performance only emphasizes the lack of zeal in the other characters. To none of the actors’ faults, the script is to blame as it never gives the cast or audience the footing they need. These awkward characters and performances make it unclear who or what should be rooted for.

The lack of explanation and growth of Frances and Malcolm’s relationship is perhaps the other most notable downfall of the script. With Malcolm’s character being so attached to his mother, this relationship is crucial but never fleshed out on screen. Aside from the moment where she picked him up from boarding school 10 years ago, no other flashbacks fill in any gaps of how their relationship has progressed since.

With elements of surrealism and fantasy that feel misplaced, jokes that fall flat, a script as dry as the on-screen martinis and no clear point of view, “French Exit” was overall a disappointment. The script teeters on the style of self-conscious Noah Baumbach or the formulaic Wes Anderson, but falls in the muddy water between the two. Besides Michelle Pfeiffer’s Oscar-worthy performance, a truly delightful score and beautiful scenery, the film is unmemorable, bloated and baffling.