Florence Foster Jenkins
Directed by: Stephen Frears.
Written by: Nicholas Martin.
Starring: Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Hugh Grant (St Clair Bayfield), Simon Helberg (Cosmé McMoon), Rebecca Ferguson (Kathleen), Nina Arianda (Agnes Stark), Stanley Townsend (Phineas Stark), Allan Corduner (John Totten), Christian McKay (Earl Wilson).
Watching Florence Foster Jenkins, I felt nothing but respect for the performances by Meryl Streep, Hugh Grand and Simon Helberg – who make this film watchable from beginning to end, and even occasionally enjoyable. But I could never really get into the film itself – mainly I think it’s because I could never muster sympathy – or empathy – with a rich woman, who is among the worst singers in the world, who is such a precious flower that everyone around her pretends she is a masterful singer. She is a character without any self-awareness in this regard, and I found her more annoying than anything. No, I didn’t sneer at her – like some of the assholes in the audience in the film, or the reporter played by Christian McKay, does in print. But I couldn’t muster any real feeling for a woman who has so much money everyone spends the movie kissing her ass – no matter how the film bends over backwards to forge real connections between its three leads. The fact that it pulls that off at all is a miracle.
The film takes place in New York in the 1940s. Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a rich heiress – given tons of money by her father when he died, and has no heirs to pass it along to. She is married to St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) – an average actor and monologist, who knows how average he is, and has decided to just have fun in his life. At first, we think Bayfield is just another Hugh Grant asshole – using Florence for her money, especially since he has his own apartment, and a younger mistress (Rebecca Ferguson). But the film makes it clear that there really is a bond between him and Florence – that he doesn’t just cater to her to keep getting her money, but out of genuine affection for her. Yes, an asshole would run interference for Florence with the press – but Bayfield goes further than that, defending her to people she would never know were mocking her. That affection doesn’t extend to sex – I don’t think – but the movie explains that in its way as well. Grant, who has often cruised on his considerable charm in movies, here digs deeper – and makes Bayfield the film’s most interesting, complex character. The film also acts as a coming out party of sorts for The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg – who plays Cosme McMoon – the piano playing accompanist hired by Bayfield to work with Florence. He knows she’s awful – but needs the money. Like Bayfield, he will eventually grow fond of Florence himself – risking ridicule to perform with her.
Then there is Streep, who is of course, Meryl Streep – so you know her performance is good. Her biggest accomplishment here is to sing as horribly as she does, because we know how good she can sing. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top and hilarious, because that is precisely what it’s supposed to be. Streep plays Florence as completely clueless as to her own lack of abilities- tremendously needy and vain as well. She is able to get away with what she does because she gives so much money to the right people – she really does support music at a time when it needed it, which is why so many people line up to kiss her ass.
What I wish about Florence Foster Jenkins is that the filmmakers – director Stephen Frears and writer Nicholas Martin – had risked showing Florence in something other than a completely sympathetic light. I’m not asking the film to mock her – mockery in easy in movies, and more often than not comes across to me as smug superiority. Yet the movie seems so utterly and completely charmed by her that it left me feeling uneasy. Should we really have that much sympathy for a woman who lived a life of incredible leisure, and was surrounded by people – however much affection they genuinely had for her – never would have been there had she not had money? Isn’t there something more than a little sad (and not in the maudlin, sentimental way the film portrays it in the last act) about this story?
Make no mistake, Florence Foster Jenkins knows its target audience, and delivers to them precisely what they want. But as with many Streep films in years, I am left admiring her work way more than the film itself. At least this time, unlike many in the past, she doesn’t so completely take over the film that there is no room for anyone else to shin – Grant and Helberg are both better than Streep are really. But it’s another one of those Streep films where you left saying “She’s amazing – the film, not so much”.