When I walked into the Ann Arbor 20 IMAX movie theater, I felt like I was entering a place that was half-asleep.
It had been over a year — one year, two months and a day, as it happens — since I’d last set foot in a movie theater, and what greeted me felt surreal. There were, at most, 15 cars in the parking lot. Inside, patrons and employees were scarce: There was a cashier at the ticket counter who cheerfully told my friend that it was her first day back at work, plus one employee shoveling popcorn and one more behind the cash register. There were Wonder Woman collectible cups in a display case at the fully stocked concession stand, which had probably remained there since the release of “Wonder Woman 1984” last Christmas. No one was at the checkpoint where I was used to handing over my ticket to be split into stubs, but I still wondered if the attendant had just stepped away for a moment.
Before the pandemic, I tried to go to the movies at least two or three times a month. I lived for $5 matinees, overpriced candy and an excuse to put my phone away for a couple of hours. A movie theater is a place that demands I stay quiet and pay attention, and since everything shut down last March, I’ve come to fully realize exactly how important the physical space is to the way I process and appreciate films. I tried to replicate it a few times at home — on my couch, popcorn, soda, Sour Patch Kids and all — but my 32-inch TV screen could never hope to live up to my expectations, and my blinds aren’t enough to keep light from filtering into my living room.
So, of course, I was thrilled to go back to a movie theater after my second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, especially to see “French Exit,” which I’d been looking forward to for a while. I also wanted to feel like I was doing my part to support an industry I love after a year that clobbered it financially. The recent announcement that the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles (which has been a Hollywood institution since 1963) will not be reopening made me nervous about what the slow death of the movie theater might mean for my own local cinemas. I only spent $5.75 on my ticket to “French Exit,” but I hoped that my small contribution would help in its own little way.
After stopping for popcorn, my friends and I walked to the other side of the building to get to our theater. Large cardboard cutouts lined the hallway, advertising movies I didn’t even know were slated to come out. It was hard to tell if they were outdated — like the Wonder Woman cups — or if they were waiting for people like me and my friends, the early returners. That afternoon, though, there was no one else to see them; we didn’t encounter a single other employee or moviegoer lingering in the hallways. I wasn’t surprised, given the fact that vaccine rollout has only recently ramped up, but it was still jarring to go back to a place that had always hummed with activity and find it so quiet and empty.
Things felt a little more normal once we’d found our theater and taken our seats. There were only two other people in the audience, but I’d seen movies with even fewer. I sat down, turned off my phone, winced as the whir of my reclining seat cut through the quiet opening of the film, leaned back and settled in.
We hadn’t gotten there in time to watch the previews, so I was immediately thrust into the world of the film. The first thing you might notice about “French Exit” is that Michelle Pfeiffer (“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”) — austere, stately and decked out in furs — looks incredible. She plays Frances Price, a glamorous New Yorker who has spent all of the family’s money since her husband’s death. At the advice of the family’s accountant, Frances sells her house and most of her belongings before moving into a friend’s apartment in Paris with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, “Waves”) and their cat, Small Frank.
Pfeiffer is easily the best thing about the film. While the rest of the characters are painted and played in very broad strokes — son, girlfriend, boyfriend, best friend, neighbor, private investigator, psychic — Frances isn’t so easily categorized. She’s a brusque, chilly, marginally famous socialite who didn’t get along with her husband, but she’s also a good mom who’s uncommonly kind to strangers and clearly haunted. She expresses her intention to kill herself when she runs out of money, which she loses over the course of the film by spending it on surpluses of expensive groceries and giving thousands of dollars away to homeless people. Although she later dismisses her suicidal ideation as a temporary lapse in judgment, Pfeiffer adds a consistent and subtle sadness to Frances, creating the film’s only effective element of intrigue: a morbid will-she-won’t-she.
It’s hard to tell if the other characters are purposefully flat in order to make Pfeiffer stand out, but she brings depth to a movie that, without her, would just feel like a long series of conversations between mismatched people. I don’t mind long series of conversations, but in this case, the exchanges are far too stilted for my liking. The dialogue tries to be quick and witty but just isolates the characters from one another and from the audience. In one scene, Malcolm’s fiancée Susan (Imogen Poots, “The Father”) asks him, “How would you describe yourself?” From underneath a napkin, which he has placed over his face in exasperation, Malcolm replies, “I don’t know that I’d bother to in the first place.” It’s strained, contrived conversations like these, between characters who are supposed to know each other well, that make the film feel cold and much too concerned with coming across as acerbic and high-minded.
With its stilted conversations, minimalism, understated comedic elements and a heavy emphasis on setting, “French Exit” feels like a late-career Woody Allen imitation, à la “Café Society” or “A Rainy Day in New York.” It also adds a supernatural element in the form of the family’s cat, who happens to be a reincarnation of Frances’s late husband Frank. I’m always happy to see (or, in this case, hear) Tracy Letts (“Little Women”), who gets a fun cameo as Small Frank’s voice, but it’s a B-plot that fails to justify itself. It attempts to add interest to a movie that drags in its first act, but when it’s introduced, it only diverts needlessly from the central action, rather than move it forward.
Overall, “French Exit” is something of a slog. Pfeiffer is so good, and there are moments when the film can be genuinely funny and touching, but both fail to make up for too many flat characters and a script that takes itself too seriously.
As the credits rolled, my friends and I stayed in our seats. I appreciated the chance to think about how I felt about the movie, and to also slowly reenter a real-world that I’d been happily taken away from. I’ll admit that I was momentarily disappointed that I didn’t love the film that would forever mark my long-awaited return to the movies after a global crisis. I couldn’t help but wonder if I should’ve just waited for “The French Dispatch” or “In the Heights” or any of the many delayed movies I’m still looking forward to.
In the car ride back to my apartment, one of my friends, who liked the movie after the pace picked up a bit, said that she wouldn’t have finished it if she hadn’t seen it in a movie theater. I didn’t hate “French Exit,” but I probably wouldn’t have made it through, either.
But, ultimately, I’m still glad that I got to see it. I realized that going back to the movies was less about the movie and more about the act of seeing it. I was able to sit back and enjoy something without my mind or eyes drifting back to my phone every few minutes; I had to give it all of my attention and consider it fully.
I’ve missed movie theaters so much, and now that vaccination numbers are rising every day, I hope that people will start going again and that theaters will be able to find their feet. I know that I’ll be there — at the Ann Arbor 20 or The State Theatre or the Michigan Theater — whenever I can be, trying to make up for all of the time that we’ve lost.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at email@example.com.