Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg
Rated PG-13 for Brief Suggestive Material
People may say I couldn't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing. -Florence Foster JenkinsThat mentality is what made Florence Foster Jenkins so interesting. She's an eccentric old bat who loves to sing, despite the fact that syphilis caused so much damage to her body that she can't hit a single note on key. The result is like fingernails on a chalkboard, which made her an infamous joke. She was the Jerry Springer of opera.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a wealthy socialite living in New York City. Her husband is St Clair Bayfield (Grant), who loves her but has a girlfriend (or girlfriends) on the side. Since Madame Florence has syphilis, she is okay with this (or at least letting herself be blind to it). She lives for music, and loves to sing. Slight problem...when she opens her mouth to belt out an aria, it's enough to make the walls peel. While St Clair and her society friends are willing to lie to allow Florence to keep her fantasy, Florence really believes it, and when she makes a record that goes public, the cat's out of the bag.
Finding the right tone for the film must have been difficult for Stephen Frears. He wants us to like Florence even though we are laughing at her. She's the butt of a joke only she doesn't know it. It's kind of mean, so the decision to humanize her is a mistake. We feel bad for her. It's hard not to have a few grins when she "sings," but I felt rotten when I did. Seeing this alone might have made me feel like a complete jerk.
It's not Meryl Streep's fault. Streep is wonderful (as always), especially because she does her own singing. It must have been challenging for her since she can sing beautifully (as anyone who has seen "Mamma Mia" can attest). Dramatically, this isn't a particularly challenging role for Streep, but what's special about it is that she appears to have studied the real singer's voice. Kudos for her not only being able to accomplish this, but being able to listen to it for so long. Hugh Grant came out of semi-retirement to act along side Meryl Streep, and it makes you realize how much you missed him. There's none of the charmingly befuddled schtick that made him popular in romantic comedies, and that's a good thing. He plays St Clair as a man who loves his wife and wants to make her happy by any means possible. Their relationship isn't normal, but he is completely devoted to her. Streep will probably get the Oscar nomination, but it's Grant who steals the movie. The weak link is Simon Helberg. As the mild-mannered, tiny voiced pianist who has found himself in a very unusual position, Helberg is flat. The character is flatly written, Helberg is uncharismatic, and the character is so nebbish that it's off-putting.
I like Stephen Frears. He's very good at mixing comic and dramatic elements and making feel-good movies (see "Mrs. Henderson Presents"). But here, he's working with a script that is unfinished, and he doesn't find a successful way to present his central character. This movie has its moments, but ultimately, it misses the mark.