Review: Florence Foster Jenkins
PLOT: The true story of eccentric socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), who’s deluded herself into thinking she’s one of the world’s great opera singers despite a total lack of talent. With the help of her indulgent husband (Hugh Grant) and a concert pianist (Simon Helberg) she tries to fulfill her lifelong dream of playing Carnegie Hall, but will unsympathetic critics spoil the fantasy?
REVIEW: Watching FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps Stephen Frears’s film was – in part – a reaction to some of his more poorly reviewed projects, with LAY THE FAVORITE and THE PROGRAM both getting savage film festival reviews (mine among them). Luckily, this polished piece of summer counter-programming is more in-line with his better films (PHILOMENA & THE QUEEN) than his flops, so those critics he may be (lightly) chastising will probably like this despite themselves.
The real Florence Foster Jenkins is a pretty fascinating figure, and the movie does a good job turning her overall tragic story into a feel-good PG-13 comedy that should play well with an older demo. In the title role, Meryl Streep seems to be having the time of her life, as Jenkins screams out lyrics and, basically, makes opera her bitch. Wearing lots of old-age makeup (the real Meryl defies time) and a bald cap/wig, she disappears into the part, hiding her usual intelligence behind a veneer of naiveté that may also be aided by the fact that Jenkins is shown to be in the late stages of syphilis.
For much of the film, Frears seems to be going for a 1930’s/40’s-style screwball comedy vibe, with slapstick set pieces (including Hugh Grant’s wild-eyed rumba with a socialite). Towards the end he makes a sharp detour into tragedy, something which perhaps plays better than it ought to thanks to his sure hand and Streep’s skillful performance. While Jenkins is mostly played as a fun, goofy character Streep always makes sure there’s some poignancy buried behind the eyes and when the mean critics turn on her (grrrr – stupid critics!) you can’t help but sympathize, even if the character is self-deluded to an insane level.
While thoroughly Meryl’s show, Hugh Grant also makes a solid impression as her beloved common-law husband, a hack English actor named St. Clair Bayfield. Grant’s been mostly off-screen these last few years, but this is a tailor-made part, with him having fun mangling Shakespeare (affecting a funny Richard Burton-style Welsh accent while reciting) or exchanging knowing looks with Simon Helberg’s pianist as Streep mangles opera. Through it all, Grant plays Bayfield as an adoring husband, albeit one who lives in his own flat and has a live-in mistress (ROGUE NATION’s Rebecca Ferguson).
Of the leads, the only one who seems to have a hard time juggling the comedy and pathos is “The Big Bang Theory’s” Helberg, who overdoes it with his fey pianist to the point that the characterization is ludicrous. Had it been a straight-up comedy this might have been OK, but there are serious moments as well, and it’s tough to get emotional when doing a caricature. It’s a weird take on the part, although the audience laughed at most of his antics, so what do I know? After all – I’m only a critic and as this film demonstrates, all they do is ruin things!
Overall, FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS is a charming comedy and one that everyone’s parents will probably flock to see. While it’s unlikely to get any major awards traction (although then again – it’s Meryl) it’s a good piece of counter-programming and a pleasurable way to spend two hours. This is the kind of thing that would go down really easy on a Sunday afternoon, and despite being predictable and schmaltzy, it always works and Meryl’s never been funnier.