With Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Frears and Meryl Streep have done what Donald Trump’s campaign team couldn’t: make a spoiled rich idiot look charming, earnest, and completely lovable. This retelling of the life of Jenkins, the singer who brought down house after house with her Grammy-winning arias, has tons of laughs, the umpteenth great performance from Streep, and a story of love that touches even as it mocks. With its twisted irony, it’s by far the most absurdly uplifting tribute to the power of dreams you’ll ever see.
If you overlook the broken engine, the squeaky wheels, and the missing gears, Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) was a model Little Engine that Could. She adored music from a young age and spent her whole life organizing appreciation clubs, sponsoring concerts, and performing for the public. If only her talent was as strong as her passion. Her utter lack of singing ability would have been enough to cause her endless shame were it not for the devoted support of her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who bribed critics and carefully screened audience members to make sure Jenkins never lost her capacity for delusional self-confidence. This biopic takes place in the midst of World War II, when Jenkins, a tireless supporter of the American troops, makes the decision to give a concert for their benefit at Carnegie Hall. (Only the best of concert halls for the best of singers, of course.) With the help of Bayfield, she recruits an accompanist, the young pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), and sets about rehearsing in a distinctly…authentic manner.
The first thing you notice about this movie is that it’s funny. Really, really funny. The scenes where Jenkins attempts to sing will literally have you rolling on the floor. The carefully worded dialogue and awkwardly suppressed facial reactions littering this movie are golden moments of farce, so arduously twisted to flatter Jenkins’ ego that you can’t help but face-palm over and over again. Yet there’s more than meets the eye. If you think about it, we should be disgusted that many truly great musicians of the 30s and 40s have been all but forgotten, but the travesty of a spoiled rich heiress’ concert remains the most requested file from the Carnegie Hall Archives. Yet Frears, the man who made Queen Elizabeth look vulnerable in The Queen and a sheltered old lady uncommonly wise in Philomena, knows how to bring the best out of his characters. For every hilarious scene of Jenkins trying and miserably failing at Verdi, there’s another one reflecting on her battle with syphilis, her dashed childhood dream of being a pianist, and her relentless refusal to give up doing what she knows makes people happy. Singing, after all, was not just Jenkins’ hobby, but a public, moral duty. Her life story turns out to be a perfect mixture of external comedy and inner drama that leaves you laughing, crying, and, against all odds, moved.
The movie’s success really wouldn’t exist, however, without the work of the three leads, all of whom do stellar work. Helberg brings a brilliant array of comical facial expressions and physical mannerisms reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. On top of that, he does remarkably well playing piano accompaniment to a singer who has neither pitch nor rhythm to guide her. Grant, meanwhile, combines all the right quantities of British charm, poised sneakiness, and undying love. He’s the husband who lives in another apartment with a mistress but could never bear the possibility of seeing his real wife fail or suffer. 25 years of tirelessly shielding your spouse from critics seems burdensome, but Grant makes it appear the natural thing to do.
Neither of these men, however, can surpass the wonders of the prima donna. Streep’s challenge in this movie was double. Aside from the usual work of humanizing an otherwise unlikable character, she also had to make her singing the right degree of bad to be recognizable but still painfully off. As usual, she succeeds on both counts. She absorbs every aspect of her character, from the peculiar habits to the vibrant heart, and makes it all so amazingly real. Her Jenkins could be your grandmother, that eccentric relative you don’t have the heart to tell off but still love unreservedly. The rational part of your mind registers this is Streep you’re watching, but without your realizing it, she effortlessly sucks all your emotions straight into another world. When the Oscars run around, expect her to get her perennial Best Actress nomination.
The all-too-familiar, super-feel-good mantra of “believe in yourself” has inspired too many Hollywood productions to count. Florence Foster Jenkins doesn’t represent any awe-inspiring artistic innovation on its predecessors. That, however, doesn’t make what it does instead – spin a poster child for abject egotism into an inspiring tribute to the importance of persistence and attitude – any less worth watching. With three strong performances and plenty of wonderful singing to keep your ears on guard, this movie makes the cliché seem fresh again. Jenkins may have been a complete failure in her lifetime. But thanks to this movie, she can rest assured her invaluable contributions to the art of stupidity will always live on.
Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg
Running Time: 115 minutes
Produced by: Michael Kuhn, Tracey Seaward
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Nicholas Martin