*** out of ****
(for brief suggestive material, some language)
Released: August 12, 2016
Runtime: 111 minutes
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson
A comic tale with a tender touch, Florence Foster Jenkins is the true story of the worst singer to ever play Carnegie Hall. The great Meryl Streep and director Stephen Frears (The Queen) deliver a charming film for the arthouse crowd, a dry yet warm-hearted farce of highbrow sophisticated silliness.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) was a New York City heiress and notable financial matriarch of the early-to-mid 20th Century music and opera world. An amateur soprano to the extreme (she was horrible), Jenkins saw her unfulfilled dreams become a possibility after inheriting a sizable trust from her father. Under the keen guidance and careful damage control of her second “husband” (a legal status never confirmed), Jenkins’ dream comes true but on very bittersweet terms.
That “achievement” isn’t particularly a spoiler, even to the uninitiated, as the clear drive of the story isn’t so much if she’ll end up in Carnegie Hall but rather how on earth someone of her screeching limitations – even with her financial resources – could pull off such a feat.
It all starts with the perpetuation and precise maintenance of a façade. Husband and manager St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, in a wonderful wide-ranging turn that exudes an elitist charm) is never honest with Florence about how bad her voice actually is, not to mention her garish taste in costuming which only magnifies her comic cluelessness. He affirms and helps her misguided pursuits while creating a bubble big enough within NYC’s high society (thanks to old friends and friendly bribes) to propagate the ruse on a public level that he can control.
Even so, carefully stocking receptive crowds for small productions in lesser music houses is one thing. But when Florence sets things in motion to record an album and pursue Carnegie Hall, Bayfield’s glad-handing charisma and deep pockets may not be enough to keep this bubble from popping on a humiliating scale.
All of this is fascinating enough on its own merits, plus Frears has a deft touch for how to shoot and assemble comedy that’s buoyed by wit and punctuated by guffaws, but then Frears delicately weaves in two conjoined subplots – Florence’s health issues and Bayfield’s mistress – to deepen the humor with a rather poignant underlay.
His two leads masterfully authenticate these shifts in tone, perhaps Grant even more so than Streep; he convincingly makes Bayfield a sincerely devoted husband to Florence, even as he appeases his romantic appetites elsewhere. He’s committed to Florence for more than having a Sugar Momma; Bayfield strives to make her dreams a reality, even in the face of impossible odds, because he wants them for her. He may not be in love with her, but he does love her.
For Streep’s part she’s characteristically brilliant, particularly in how she perfectly modulates Florence’s bad singing in just such a way that we understand how she may not be able to fully comprehend the degree of her own inadequacy. She can hit notes occasionally, but she can’t sing. It’s not easy to make singing that specifically bad while also making it funny, and not merely grating. The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg is also an endearing standout as Cosmé, Florence’s hired pianist, who grows to cherish Florence even in spite of his own career ambitions (and Helberg’s broad facial reactions are often scene stealers).
The big question for viewers, perhaps, is are we supposed to laugh at Florence or with her? Both, I believe, and Streep makes it easy to. We laugh at her without feeling guilty, yet also root for her for one simple reason: her love for music is as pure as her voice isn’t. And for a woman who’s been handed multiple hardships not of her own making, we want that love to be rewarded – no matter if her delusions shouldn’t be.