Friday May 15, 1998
"French Exit" is a sad case, a bland and predictable film that clearly meant a lot to the people who made it. In fact, director Daphna Kastner and her co-writer, Michael A. Lerner, based "French Exit" upon their own experiences as struggling scribes in Hollywood, and threw in an "opposites attract" love story and a charming pair of performers (Jonathan Silverman and Madchen Amick for good measure.) For all that, it just doesn't add up to very much.
Amick and Silverman play fledging screenwriters who are drawn to each other like powerful magnets until the demon of ambition intercedes. Before long they are competing like fiends for a puerile rewrite assignment on an outer-space remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty." What they respond to in each other, it seems, despite some initially off-putting superficial differences (she's a klutz, he's a smoothie), is a nagging sense of regret that they're no longer doing honest, heartfelt work.
The deck is stacked against the Hollywood carrot-and-stick ethos from the start, as it probably should be. But even so, the lovebirds take their own sweet time deciding that the carrot isn't worth pursuing, that the very act of chasing it is soul-killing, and that anybody with a scrap of real talent should opt out while there's still time. (The phrase "French exit" is defined as "leaving the party without saying goodbye to anyone.")
As a filmmaker, Kastner has consistently put her money where her mouth is, working mostly in no-budget independent projects, acting in a couple of Henry Jaglom films and then writing and starring, with a pre-"X-Files" David Duchovny, in the winning "Julia Has Two Lovers" (1991). She already has another personal project in the pipeline, a romantic comedy called "Spanish Fly." At the most obvious level, "French Exit" is an indie true-believer's kiss-off note to Hollywood.
Just about everything that ends up on the screen, however, is flat and conventional, with little of the scruffy surface texture of real life. There are sequences in "French Exit," from the "meet cute" fender-bender opening to the race-to-the-airport finale, that could have been purchased at a Hollywood yard sale. The obstacles that threaten the romance are circumstantial goofs that would look stale on a TV sitcom. (Each of the lovers is led to believe that the other is sleeping around for career advancement.)
Kastner and Lerner supposedly infiltrated tony industry parties when they were writing "French Exit," copying down choice fatuous remarks. Yet, as they're presented, the attacks upon the venal life-forms of Hollywood feel as generic as the love story, retreads from sharper films like "The Player" and "Swimming With Sharks." At least Molly Hagan, as Zina's casting director roommate, and Kurt Fuller, as a macho-slug producer, bring some malicious zest to their bullying betrayals. Perhaps you could argue that it isn't the filmmakers who lack originality, but Hollywood itself; a city full of self-made cliches.
For Kastner and Lerner, "French Exit" isn't just anybody's story, it's their own, and their closeness to it may have fogged their judgment. That it's all true and that they mean every last word of it just doesn't turn out to be enough.
French Exit, 1998. R, for language and a scene of drug use. A presentation of Cineville in association with Filmsmith. Director Daphna Kastner. Screenplay Daphna Kastner & Michael A. Lerner. Producer Zachary Matz. Co-producer Frederic Bouin. Executive producers Carl Colpaert, Michael A. Lerner, Christoph Henkel. Co-executive producer Robert Strauss. Associate producers Edward Oleschak, Kay Lyn Byrne. Line producer Ruta K. Aras. Director of photography Geza Sinkovics. Editor Claudia Finkle. Costume designer Tanya Gill. Music Alex Wurman. Production designer Jean-Philippe Carp. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Madchen Amick as Zina Hart. Jonathan Silverman as Davis Lake. Molly Hagan as Alice. Vince Grant as Charles. Kurt Fuller as Sam Stubin. Beth Broderick as Andie. Bruce Nozick as Seller. Craig Vincent as Frank.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times