Jacobs and deWitt previously collaborated on the 2011 film “Terri,” a soft-hearted dry comedy about a bullied teenager. Here, the tone is more arched, the language more stylized, and viewers may find this self-awareness off-putting. “French Exit” exists in one of my favorite movie subgenres – it’s a Sad, Rich, White People movie – but the characters are aware of their sad state and eager to comment on it wryly. As Frances’ future looks particularly bleak at one point, she points out to her best and only friend, Joan (a lovely Susan Coyne), that she knows she’s a cliché, and that she is from okay with that because it kind of makes it timeless. “French Exit” takes place these days, but its characters seem frozen in time decades ago, with their use of payphones and postcards to make awkward fumbles towards human connection. A literary, eccentric version of New York creates a strong vibe here, even when the characters are packing for France by title.
A choppy impulse has animated the film from the start, as we watch Frances snatch her teenage son, Malcolm, from his leafy boarding school out of the blue. “What do you want to do?” she asks with a conspiratorial glint in her eyes and just the slightest smirk. “Do you want to leave with me?” We are immediately addicted to his playfulness as well as his indifference to what other people think. Fast forward several years, and Malcolm (an intentionally bland Lucas Hedges) is now a curvy 20-something who is secretly engaged to this longtime girlfriend (Imogen Poots). Frances, a widow for some time now, comes to the harsh realization that she has blown through the family’s immense fortune. “We are insolvent,” she informs her son, managing to stretch the word to four syllables as she sips wine and sharpens knives alone in the dark kitchen. She’s so broke that her check for $ 600 to pay the housekeeper bounces.
But Frances is fortunate enough to escape both the misery and the scrutiny she undergoes when Joan offers to let her and Malcolm stay in his empty apartment in Paris. “Getting out of New York is the thing, honey,” she tells Frances on Bloody Marys at a Tony restaurant. And so, after Steven Soderbergh’s cruise comedy “Let Them All Talk,” we have yet another movie in which Hedges plays a aimless young man accompanying an older relative on a transatlantic journey. The family’s black cat, Small Frank, also accompanies the journey, which has an intensity in his green-eyed gaze that suggests he fully understands what is going on around him. (And the great Tracy Letts, Jacobs’ “The Lovers” co-star who ultimately provides the resonant voice of Small Frank, is woefully underutilized. It could have been a wall-to-wall talking cat and I would have been everything. Strongly agree with that; furthermore, the surreal nature of such a notion would fit in perfectly with the film’s increasingly insane sensibility.)