Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears, 2016)
I miss the Meryl Streep of yore, before she was an institution, accorded diva status and expected to play corresponding roles. I loved her in Tommy Lee Jones’s recent The Homesman, where her few minutes on screen allowed her enough time to show how much she could do with very little. These days, however, she all too often plays larger-than-life parts, from Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada, to Julia Child in Julia & Julia, to Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, to the battle-axe of a matriarch in August: Osage County (where, for my money, she was outclassed by the far more restrained Julia Roberts). I am sure that much of this is the result of a dearth of normal roles for women as they age. Who wouldn’t rather play eccentrics than faceless helpmates and housewives? Still, knowing the emotional depths of which Streep is capable – think Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice or Silkwood, to name but three of her many past (comparatively subtle) glories – it seems almost a shame to watch her don yet another set of stylized mannerisms for yet another oddball. Nevertheless, if we compare her to a male contemporary who began in the same 1970s era – Robert De Niro – whose work over the past decade has included far too many forgettable comedies like the recent Dirty Grandpa, Streep remains the far better model of how to remain relevant in the later years of one’s career.
But here she is as wealthy heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, whose inability to hold a tune was matched only by her willingness to belt it for all to hear. Dubbed “the worst singer in the world” by at least one reporter (according to this film), Jenkins was a great patron of the arts, both in her adopted hometown of New York and across the globe, spreading her riches generously through circles large and small. As a result, she had a devoted following that even included the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, though that (purchased) loyalty did not necessarily translate into attendance at one her concerts. After all, art is art, and brooks (almost) no compromise. As played by Streep, she is all nervous and clueless bluster, sweetly bombastic as she prepares for one final concert at Carnegie Hall. It would all seem so improbably if it were not, in fact, based on the truth. Earlier this year saw the release of French director Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite, which told a highly fictionalized version of the same story. In many ways that was the superior film, both in its central performance (by the great Catherine Frot, Haute Cuisine) and period splendor. Both movies, however, suffer from the same problem: what, beyond their ridiculous belief in their nonexistent talent, makes these women worthy of a feature-length treatment of their lives. They’re rich, spoiled, and, aside from that one peculiarity, not very interesting.
Fortunately, what Florence Foster Jenkins has going for it is a marvelous performance by Hugh Grant (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as Jenkins’s husband-cum-manager-cum-valet, St Clair Bayfield, a failed actor who long-ago decided that life held more pleasures in the company of a loving patron than on an empty stage. Of course, this doesn’t prevent him from spending half his time in the company of his much younger mistress (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, in a thankless part), but there is no question that the relationship is mutually beneficial to husband and wife, both. As the film begins, the two are engaged in a joint performance where Bayfield recites monologues and Jenkins poses in tableaux vivants of famous opera scenes, all for the wealthy patrons of the tony Verdi Club. Soon, though, Jenkins decides she wants to sing again, and so Bayfield – played by Grant as an all-purpose fixer – arranges auditions for a new accompanist. They settle on one Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, The Big Bang Theory), as much a lost artistic soul as are they, and before long the three are preparing for the big concert. Not, however, before we hear Jenkins sing, and realize what a disaster this will be.
Ah, the singing. It is funny. Streep makes it so. But after 5 minutes of hearing the desperate warble, and watching McMoon struggle not to laugh (a process repeated many times), we grow bored. Is that all there is to the movie? Director Stephen Frears (Philomena) likes his outsiders and oddballs, but her can’t seem to rise above the mere showcase of strangeness. Yes, Jenkins’s life was a celebration of the fact that belief in art can sometimes be as powerful as actual talent, but we get that point early on. The rest of the time, we’re simply watching a deluded millionaire sing out of tune. There was another story that could have been told here (and Marguerite came closer to telling it) – a satire about the distance between wealth and talent – but Frears and company get too lost in the surface ticks of their main character, and the tragic sentimentality of her love life, to see what could have been. It’s all veneer, in other words, and occasionally entertaining, at that, but lacking in a strong story, beneath.