Florence Foster Jenkins

 

            Only Meryl Streep could pull this off.  And she does.  Though I'm not sure it's worth it.

It's New York City in 1944.  America is in the middle of World War II, which we were winning, but at great cost.  Though many entertainment venues were curtailed or shut down completely during the War, there were some people with money who were going to do theater, no matter what else was going on in the world.  And Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was one of them.

            At one time, she had a fine voice, but age had taken its toll, and she could no longer hit the high notes.  But in her case, there was something wrong with her hearing and perception, as well:  she didn't realize she'd gotten so bad.  Or else she did realize it, but refused to acknowledge it, and everyone around her was so accustomed to spending their lives pleasing her every whim that they didn't have the courage to tell her the truth, either.  (Echoes of “The Emperor's New Clothes.”)

            Ms. Jenkin's long-time husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) is at the top of the list of those quite willing to indulge Ms. Jenkin's fantastic ego, because, well, he was once a struggling actor who was only too happy to give up an unpromising career for the lifelong role of being her always kind-hearted Sweet Ums.  He'd help her to sleep every night by reciting lines from plays (including “Hamlet”) until she quietly nodded off.  Then he'd kiss her good night, bid adieu to the housekeeper, and retire to this own apartment, where he kept a girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson).  This worked out well for everybody, until Ms. Jenkins makes an unexpected call on St Clair one morning, and Kathleen is forced to hide in the closet, an indignity which so sets her on edge that St Clair has to take her on a holiday in the country to placate her, claiming to his wife that he is on a golf outing.

            Ms. Jenkins, lonely in his absence, decides to make a surprise visit to their painfully shy piano player, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, who looks like he really can play).  Mr. McMoon, once he passed the auditions and became Ms. Jenkin's selection as her personal accompaniast, was of course horrified to learn of her lack of expertise, but he needed the money too badly to back out, despite fretting about his reputation as a serious musician.  St Clair just keeps plying him with money, as he also does the inimitable voice trainer, and the attendees at her concerts, and anybody else he can bribe to just play along and keep smiling.

            It all comes unraveled when Ms. Jenkins, in St Clair's absence, contacts the recording studio about putting her opera singing on a phonograph, which enjoys immediate sales interest---as a joke.  It's so bad that people love laughing at it, because it portends to be serious.  Some even give Ms. Jenkins credit for great comic timing, recognizing, of course, that it takes some musical talent to actually be this bad---it's not completely off-key, it's just gratingly flat, particularly at the critical points.  Alas, at the end, despite St Clair's desperate attempts to shield her from public ridicule, she understands that people aren't laughing with her, they're laughing at her.  And she virtually perishes from the embarrassment (well, she suffered poor health, anyway, but this was the “coup de grace”).

            For Meryl Streep, it's a singular acting achievement, but for the viewer, it's something less than enjoyable to watch somebody sing so badly, unless, of course, one simply enjoys making fun of it, but even that can't sustain the whole movie.  There's some good slapstick at times, especially when Ms.Jenkins makes her surprise appearance at St Clair's apartment.  And Simon Helberg's exasperated expressions are definitely noteworthy.  But it's an odd duck of a movie about an odd duck of a rich old lady, and unlikely to attract much viewer attention unless it catches on as a viral parody of itself, kind of like “jumping the shark” in bad opera.

 

Quesions for Discussion:

1)                  When have you pretended for someone that they weren't as bad as they sounded?

2)                  When have you pretended for someone that everyhing was fine when it wasn't?

3)                  When have you laughed out loud at someone who was trying to be serious, and then tried unsuccessfully to suppress your hilarity?  (see Sarah at the tent of Abraham)

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association