Florence Foster Jenkins
Directed by Stephen Frears. UK. 2016. PG-13. 110 minutes. Paramount. Digital.
Fri., September 2, 2016 thru Thu., September 15, 2016
Meryl Streep will get most of the attention accorded the crowd-pleasing Florence Foster Jenkins thanks to a performance that may single-handedly set off a boom in the earplug industry. But the actor you should keep your eye on is Simon Helberg. It is his reactions to her vocal travesties that really make the movie sparkle.
Ms. Streep plays the title character, a real-life figure who was a patron of the arts in New York in the first half of the last century but also fancied herself a singer. She most definitively wasn’t, but money can go a long way toward bolstering any delusion, and in 1944 Jenkins bought her way onto the Carnegie Hall stage, performing an awful concert that became the stuff of legend.
Ms. Streep is a delight, hilarious when she’s singing and convincingly on edge at all times. She gives us a woman who is tethered to reality just enough to function, but divorced from it just enough to be clueless about her lack of musical ability.
Hugh Grant plays her romantic partner and enabler, St. Clair Bayfield, who pays off critics, makes sure her recitals are packed with only sympathetic ears and tucks her into bed at night before running off to his mistress (Rebecca Ferguson). Is he just stringing Florence along because of her money, or does he really love her? Stephen Frears, the director, and Nicholas Martin, the screenwriter, leave you chewing on those questions on your way home.
The tale, though, wouldn’t be half as engaging without Mr. Helberg, who is familiar from television’s Big Bang Theory. He plays Florence’s pianist, Cosmé McMoon, who in this version of the story was just looking for a paycheck when he auditioned for a job as her accompanist, thinking she was an actual singer. Mr. Helberg’s reaction when he first hears her voice is by itself worth the price of admission. Cosmé, of course, realizes immediately how irredeemably terrible she is, and he soon fears for the effect that being associated with her might have on his own career.
Others – Tiny Tim, P. D. Q. Bach – have explored the comic possibilities of performing badly, but in this telling that wasn’t Jenkins’s intent. Instead, her story is a sort of harbinger of the YouTube age, when you never know what might go viral and are never quite sure whether it has done so because its impressive or because it’s wretched.
Mr. Frears doesn’t delve too deeply into human frailty, the lust for fame or the other darker themes suggested by Jenkins’s story (which has also inspired a play, “Souvenir,” and a recent French film, “Marguerite”). He’s content to let his three leads be eminently watchable in a mid-century New York beautifully conjured by his cinematographer, Danny Cohen, and his production designer, Alan MacDonald.” (Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times)
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