The trailer for Stephen Frears’ new film Florence Foster Jenkins is misleading in that it makes the film seem like a crowd-pleasing comedy. While very funny, Florence Foster Jenkins is a sentimental dramedy about unfulfilled artistic ambition. Based on the true story of Jenkins, the story talks to those who may be frustrated because they have the will and desire but not the skill or the talent.
Florence Foster Jenkins was a rich socialite who loved music. She also had designs on being a singer, but the trouble was she had no discernible talent. She had no ear for tone, pitch, or key. And though she had a love of music, she wasn’t terribly disciplined, and therefore her performances became legendary in their ineptness. She was an outsider artist in much the same way that Mrs. Miller or the Shaggs were – Jenkins was painfully sincere about her desires of a musical career, though, and her sincerity would eventually prove to be her undoing.
In Frears’ film – written by Nicholas Martin – we meet Jenkins (Meryl Streep), who is holding court at the music appreciation club she founded. She lives in a platonic, but devoted marriage with failed actor, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). An early marriage resulted in Jenkins being stricken with syphilis; despite her grim prognosis, she managed to live over 50 years with the illness, though the physical damage to her body is significant: she tires easily, and cannot play the piano without pain. After a particularly-successful fundraising event, in which Jenkins starred in a series of tableaux vivant, she decides that she wants to pick up her singing. Music is crucial in her life, and aside from the love she has for her husband, music is the most important thing in her life.
It’s a this point, that the movie resembles somewhat, the light comedy that the trailer promises: Jenkins’ money convinces an important conductor to tutor and she employs a fledgling composer/pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany her. Initially horrified at the untalented Jenkins, McMoon quickly gets enmeshed into this strange world of delusion, as he finds himself becoming more attached to the kind Jenkins. As her ambition grows, Jenkins sets her sights on Carnegie Hall, where she plans to perform for the troops who are fighting in WWII.
As far as biopics go, Florence Foster Jenkins is a solid work. It’s Frears’ at his least challenging (at least challenged). The story seems tailor made for this kind of movie. The title character makes for an intriguing underdog to root for: we know that her singing is awful – it’s horribly pitchy, and because she wants to perform arias, almost every note she attempts is hopelessly out of her reach – but she’s a kind person and her desire isn’t so much ego unchecked, but merely desire unchecked. And her passion is infectious, and audiences will root for the woman. And the character is yet another in a long list of brilliant portrayals for Meryl Streep. Possessed with a beautiful voice, Streep expertly produces some ear-gouging notes that do not feel like comically-bad warbling, but the genuine attempts of a hopelessly inept songstress. As with all her roles, Streep digs into the human being underneath the character and finds sincere moments of poignancy and beauty.
And as the befuddled pianist, Helberg is a marvel. Those familiar with his work on The Big Bang Theory, know that he’s a great comedian, but this role requires far more subtle work, and he’s marvelous: his Cosmé is a timid, souful man who loves music as much as Jenkins. Though the character is sexually ambiguous, Helberg adds subtle curlicues to his line readings and his physical performance. Like Streep, he’s dug deep into this guy and has created a full, three-dimensional person, full of tics and quirks. Because the film is so lightweight, I don’t think there will be serious talk of Oscar for Streep, but Helberg should be on the shortlist (just the actor’s reactions alone are worth a mantle full of prizes)
And Hugh Grant? Well, he’s an actor that always seems to be upstaged. In this film, he slips into the role of the hack actor St. Clair Bayfield, effortlessly. Though Grant is more talented, he essentially is the character: suave, debonair, and handsome. He still relies on his bag of tricks: the crinkle-eye smile, the slight dithering, the befuddlement and doesn’t make as near a strong impression as do his costars, but then again, that seems to be the them of Hugh Grant’s career: the laidback utility player, reliable, if unspectacular.
As far as escapist entertainment goes, Florence Foster Jenkins is a high-class production. Careful detail to setting and tone, and an engaged script make for a solid, above-average hour and a half of movie viewing. Frears’ direction seems unobtrusive, though it also feels a bit nondescript and anonymous, too. Still, he draws some great moments from his stars and Streep and Helberg are worth the price of admission.