Patrick deWitt’s delightful novel “French Exit,” about an eccentric Manhattan widow and her grown son who cope with impending bankruptcy by fleeing to Paris, screamed to be made into a movie. When I reviewed the book in 2018, I imagined Meryl Streep and Paul Dano in the starring roles, and wrote that the film’s tone surely “would be funny, quirky, unpredictable; its style would have a certain faded glamour, a winking je ne sais quoi.” Three years later, here’s the movie, and … well, I was wrong.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs (“The Lovers”), “French Exit” stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges as Frances and Malcolm Price, and it’s so disappointing that I really wanted to blame the screenwriter. Unfortunately, the screenwriter was deWitt. Maybe something happened in the editing room? Maybe deWitt’s particular brand of quirky surrealism doesn’t translate well to film in this case? Maybe Jacobs was the wrong director? (I’d love to have seen what Nicole Holofcener could do with this material.) Regardless of the answers to these questions, this “French Exit” never really seems to get started; it’s a string of odd characters — and one cat — looking for a movie.
And maybe that cat (voiced by Tracy Letts) is part of the problem. In the book, he’s a clear character: Small Frank, the feline incarnation of Frances’ late husband. In the movie, at first he’s just a cat; it takes a while before we figure out what he represents. That jump happens too late in the film — the movie’s ship, so to speak, has already sailed, and the cat becomes a head-scratcher rather than a creative touch. As an assortment of offbeat characters begin to gather in the Prices’ borrowed Paris apartment, the movie slips away like a cat in the night; the book’s delicate tone has been lost.
What remains is a group of skilled actors, captured in that lovely Paris light, all trying their best to liven up “French Exit.” It’s a fine troupe — particularly Valerie Mahaffey, who does a bit with a lamp that’s a tiny masterpiece of physical comedy — and the great Pfeiffer, as always, elevates the film by her mere presence. Listen to the way, speaking to Malcolm, she stretches out the last word in the phrase, “We are in-sol-vent,” like it’s sad taffy; watch how she, eyes steady as a horizon, tortures a rude Paris waiter by calmly setting fire to a centerpiece. And how much fun is it to see Pfeiffer — shades of “Batman Returns”! — playing a scene with a cat? “French Exit” isn’t without its pleasures; but you watch it dreaming of the movie it might have been.