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Skittering amusement and missed opportunity in French Exit

When there’s no money left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire. In this movie life’s greatest shame after all is being unable to afford U.E.S. townhouse-living— a notion more or less accepted as fact on behalf of the main character. After such rich-condemning fare like Parasite, I’m Sorry to Bother You, and even Knives out, a movie like this comes along touting leisure-class bonhomie. It’s a shame Azazel Jacobs sets no traps or daggers, missing an opportunity to transform Patrick Dewitt’s “French Exit,” a nimble novel ripe for silver-screen refashioning.

Having desiccated her estate funds, a widowed socialite (Michelle Pfieffer) takes a new approach to end-of-life planning. She sets out for Paris via steamship with her son Malcolm, played by Lucas Hedges as a cross-between between impish Michael Cera and Kendall Roy from Succession, but more purposefully leaden and constipated. He takes things in stride when he’s mistaken for a gigolo and rather than kick his mother-habit, he embraces it — though not to any provocative or thrilling ends. Anything below the surface, oedipal or otherwise, lies beyond the purview of this breezy movie, which mostly holds fast to its source material’s simpering refinement.

If the book was “perfumed by death,” as Katy Waldman described, it’s the anodyne stench of a white bouquet in the drawing-room. “French Exit,” the book, was well-reviewed, but not fan-making — and only a third as good as “The Sisters Brothers,” DeWitt’s previous novel. In theory, 'French Exit''s status as an unholy text would afford the filmmaker much pliability. But the movie doesn’t rise to the obstreperous occasion of its straightforward premise, nor does it become skewering commentary. Given the chance to invoke gothic undertones, or establish a new set of plucky basenotes, Jacobs abandons them and plays it, shall we say, by the book—the perils perhaps of having the novelist write the screenplay. The film rejects equally the comedy of Wilde and the absurdity of Bunuel (the talking cat voiced by Tracey Letts is more earnest than it is bizarre), two master purveyors of upper-class farce. Sticking to the book is usually admirable—the characters, including Frances are competently fashioned from the page— but effervescence eventually goes flat.

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