Synopsis: The story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.
Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda
Director: Stephen Frears
Running Length: 110 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: There’s a play based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins I saw several years back called Souvenir. A two-person drama set in a supper club where Jenkins performed with her pianist Cosmé McMoon, you knew in advance that she was regarded as a terrible singer and that’s what attracted me to it. The lights go down and I spent the next twenty minutes waiting for the actress playing Jenkins to open her mouth and warble out an opera aria. She did. I laughed. Then I spent the next two hours waiting for it to be over, the frivolity having running its course by the time the third song began.
That’s what seeing the new film Florence Foster Jenkins feels like…waiting for the joke and then checking your watch to see when it will end. Buoyed by strong performances but misguided by some plot distractions that laboriously pad the running length instead of graciously filling it, it’s not a bad film in the slightest, just a one-joke movie that has its moment in the sun before entering some rainy weather territory which seriously drags down the latter half of the picture.
Jenkins (Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady) was a spirited eccentric that actually believed she could sing and was surrounded by friends (some say hangers-on) that wouldn’t be honest with her. Her common-law husband (nicely played by Hugh Grant, Cloud Atlas) pays reporters for good write-ups and has a girlfriend on the side (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) while her new pianist (Simon Helberg) is aghast that someone so bad could be lauded so much.
Focused on the last year or so that Jenkins was alive, director Stephen Frears (Philomena) and writer Nicholas Martin have crafted a splendid looking period piece set in New York (but filmed in London) that hits most of the right notes even as their leading character runs afoul of her own musical keys. Still, there’s a paint-by-the-numbers feeling to it which keeps it awkwardly grounded and merely content with going through the emotional moments.
Yet from the rapturous reception the film received at my screening, it’s clear this is an audience-pleasing picture. I almost feel like I need to see it again since so many lines were lost to audiences roaring over a previous phrase (which I feel is actually a problem with overall editing…didn’t anyone involved screen this with a crowd first?). Released at the tail end of summer when more discerning crowds have come in from the summer sun, it’s likely to be a well-timed alternative to the CGI heavy box office fodder that’s hogged many screens at your multiplex.
Streep is, as always, beyond reproach and you can pretty much count on her making another trip to the Kodak theater with another Oscar (and SAG and Golden Globe) nomination under belt. There’s already a ton of press showing Streep singing well (like in Into the Woods) and praising her bravura bad singing here and it’s nice to find out she did the majority of the singing live. It can’t have been easy for a trained singer to learn to sing so poorly…but Streep doesn’t merely sing off-key, she’s studied Jenkins and found out WHY she doesn’t sing well and used that to get the sound right. Her Queen of the Night aria is alone worth the price of admission.
Supporting Streep is a dandy Grant who I hope will also get some Oscar recognition for his work. A difficult role seeing that he’s a bit of a cad, Grant digs deep and shows that above all else the man he’s portraying truly loved Jenkins even though they couldn’t have the kind of life together that either planned. Under some old age make-up, Grant remains charming in that aloof sort of way but over the years he’s grown as an actor to temper that aloofness with authenticity.
Aside from Streep and Grant, the other supporting players are a mixed bag. Helberg’s performance is all overbite…literally. Though Martin takes some time to flesh out Jenkins long-time pianist, Helberg plays him so slight and twee that I half expected him to fly away at any given moment. He’s got good chemistry with Streep, though, and that’s all that really matters. I’ve liked Ferguson and Nina Arianda in other movies but not much here…both play grating women in roles that easily could have been excised, especially Ferguson as Grant’s long-time mistress.
What makes Florence Foster Jenkins something I’d cautiously recommend is the stately way Frears, Martin, and Streep have presented this delusional socialite who performed her final concert to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. Knowing the difference between a characterization that’s eccentric instead of goofy, Streep gives her the requisite dignity without letting her totally off the hook. Like the overall film and the peculiar woman at its center, it’s an admirable close but no cigar.