Streep toes the line between heartbreak and hilarity in 'Florence Foster Jenkins'
Posted August 13, 2016
“FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS” — 3 stars — Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg; PG-13 (brief suggestive material); in general release
It was about this time last year when Meryl Streep was strapping on leather pants and growling into a microphone as the titular middle-aged wanna-be rock star in “Ricki and the Flash.” This time around, Streep is taking on the music scene from a different angle, through a real-life laughingstock named Florence Foster Jenkins.
Jenkins has something in common with most of us: She can’t sing. But unlike most of us, Jenkins has the ambition to sing anyway and enough money to share her “gift” with a wide audience. But if you take a look between the lighthearted lines of director Stephen Frears’ “Florence Foster Jenkins,” you’ll find a heartbreaking portrait of a woman paired with a poignant message for our time.
Jenkins was a benefactor to the arts back in the 1940s, an ex-piano teacher and the founder of the Verdi Club in New York City. When we meet her in 1944, she’s somewhere around 70, suffering the effects of a decades-long bout with syphilis (her first husband was unfaithful), but doing her best to promote local musical performances.
Ultimately, promoting isn’t enough. In a fit of inspiration, she announces to her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) that she wants to start up vocal lessons again, and soon after that, decides to take the stage for her first public performance in decades. Based on her rehearsals, a humiliating disaster is imminent.
Bayfield does what he can to protect his wife from the awful reality of her voice. He hires a voice teacher (David Haig) who showers Jenkins with praise and pays the accompanist (Simon Helberg) enough to keep his mouth shut. For her performance, Bayfield only invites people who will play along with his wife’s ego trip or have enough hearing problems not to know the difference.
Bayfield has experience being duplicitous. He’s Jenkins’ husband in name only, and living with his mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson) across town. But when his wife’s ambition leads to cutting a record and putting on a show for 3,000 veterans at Carnegie Hall, even he can’t shield Florence from her rendezvous with cold, hard reality.
When Jenkins sings, you laugh. It’s almost impossible to recognize any of the songs she’s singing, and Streep’s delivery sounds like a backing track to one of the “Planet of the Apes” films. But you feel guilty as you laugh because it is obvious the only reason anyone is interested in shielding Jenkins from the truth is because that would threaten the financial gravy train.
It’s difficult to connect to a character as eccentric as Jenkins, and most people would cringe at the notion of identifying with Bayfield. So Frears gives us Cosme McMoon, Jenkins’s accompanist, as the sympathetic conscience of the film. McMoon has a kind enough heart to see what is happening, even if he isn’t quite brave enough to do anything about it, and Helberg does an excellent job of reflecting the film’s humor while reminding us of its tragedy.
As good as Streep is as Jenkins, audiences should stick around for the closing credits, where authentic tracks from Jenkins’s record betray a special kind of naïve innocence and sincerity in the woman’s voice that's even more moving than what Streep puts onscreen.
The legend of Florence Foster Jenkins may be rooted in the 1940s, but Frears’ film feels like a subtle commentary on a social media-driven 21st century where the lust for one’s 15 minutes of fame reflects Jenkins’ misguided determination to share herself with the world. If you’ve already been wishing you could get up the nerve to throw your smartphone in the nearest lake, this movie might help with your wind up. “Florence Foster Jenkins” is a hoot, but it’s also the saddest comedy you’ll see this year.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” is rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material; running time: 110 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.