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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

* * *

Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant

There's something to be said for the no stakes drama. Like anything else, when done right, it offers its own particular pleasures, even if those pleasures are short-term and the film itself is destined to fade away from your consciousness rather than stick. Florence Foster Jenkins is pretty much exactly the movie you expect it to be: a handsomely assembled period piece, anchored by a typically effortless seeming performance from Meryl Streep (the kind that makes it so easy to take her for granted as an actress), that goes down easy and doesn't present much in the way of a challenge. If you were to describe it as a simple movie about a nice lady who thinks she can sing but actually can't, you wouldn't be wrong. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention how charming it is, how funny, and how sweet. It's not groundbreaking, but it's genuinely entertaining.

Streep stars as the title character, a socialite with a love of art, and music in particular, so pure and genuine that it makes up for her questionable level of taste. She delights in taking to the small stage of the club she founded and singing for the assembled members whose diminished hearing means that they don't recognize how out of tune her instrument is, and she's supported at every step by her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a former actor who has devoted himself for 25 years to supporting her love of performing. Into their world comes pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), who believes that he's about to get a plum assignment that will net him $300 a month and discovers to his horror that he'll be spending every day trying to play while Florence caterwauls away. But, as Bayfield is quick to remind him, theirs is a good life and they're having fun, and Cosme settles into his role of playing while Florence takes lessons with her singing coach.

When Florence begins talking about performing in public, Cosme balks at the idea, worried that he'll never be able to develop a reputation as a musician if people hear him playing with Florence, but Bayfield assures him that the performance will be "friendly," the audience comprised solely of friends and admirers and members of the press who have been paid to deliver generous reviews. All goes well, however, when Bayfield takes off to the Hamptons for a few days in an effort to appease his mistress, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), and Florence is left to her own devices, she comes up with an idea to rent out Carnegie Hall in order to put on a show and give away 1,000 tickets to men in the armed forces in order to do her part to keep up morale. When Bayfield returns and hears about what she's done, he panics, realizing that if she puts on a show of such magnitude he will not be able to protect her from criticism and ridicule. As Florence gets ready to perform, the world gets ready to laugh, and Bayfield and Cosme are left trying to find a way to allow the woman they both adore to escape with her dignity.

At its heart, Florence Foster Jenkins is a story about how people should embrace the things that make them happy and how someone shouldn't be mocked for doing their best at something they love, even if they're objectively terrible at it. Florence can't sing, but singing makes her happy, giving her something to look forward to and allowing her brief escapes from the physical pain she experiences on a daily basis as a result of having lived with syphilis ever since her first marriage at the age of 19. Although the film doesn't pretend that she's any good as a singer (though it does tacitly argue that "good" is in the ear of the beholder, as Florence's social circle is full of people who genuinely enjoy her performances and think she is good), it's ultimately wholly sympathetic to her and its villains are those who jeer at her and who invest all their powers of malice in trying to tear down an old lady who's just trying to enjoy herself and isn't hurting anyone by doing so. There's something to be said for the film's message that life is hard enough and we should find joy where we can. Yet, at the same time, while watching the film I couldn't help but think of Foxcatcher, which is also about a very wealthy person who isn't particularly good at the thing they're passionate about (in Foxcatcher's case, wrestling), but is able to throw enough money around to get people to engage in the fiction that they are good at it. Florence isn't crazy, like John du Pont, but is there really any difference between Bayfield paying reviewers to write good things about her singing in their publications and du Pont's handlers paying other wrestlers to throw their matches so that du Pont can emerge with a win? In a perfect world, everyone would be able to follow their passion but, like so many things, the reality is that the privilege belongs to those who can afford it.

Determined to be edgeless, this isn't the point that Florence Foster Jenkins is trying to make - it's too invested in the notion that it's noble not just to dream, but to continue following your dreams, as evidenced by how wistful Bayfield is about having given up on his own acting ambitions despite knowing that he would never have the talent to be "great" at it - but it's something that came to mind while I was watching it, even though this film, with its warmth and sweetness, is worlds away from the chilly and grim Foxcatcher. Even in the moments when it hints at the despair underneath - Florence's pain from the ailments brought on by syphilis, the crushing disappointment of her dream of becoming a concert pianist being destroyed by nerve damage to her hand, her longing to have a more conventional relationship with Bayfield, each a note wonderfully played by Streep - Florence Foster Jenkins is ultimately more interested in being a feel good movie than anything else, and it succeeds at that. It succeeds because director Stephen Frears is a mastercraftsman who understands just how far the material can be pushed, because Streep can find the humanity in a character who might otherwise seem cartooney, and because Grant delivers the best and most nuanced performance of his career. As an actor Grant has tended to fall back on one persona or another (in the '90s it was that of a nervous charmer, in the '00s it was a cadish rogue), which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but he rises to the occasion in this movie playing a man who is a good and loyal husband, even if he isn't a faithful one, and whose depth of feeling for the woman he calls "Bunny" is truly touching. Florence Foster Jenkins might not be a masterpiece, but it's a film that has so much going for it that you're rewarded for giving it a couple of hours of your time.

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