The Surprisingly Entertaining, Eccentric 'Florence Foster Jenkins'

Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

Screeching her way to another successful performance, Meryl Streep makes Florence Foster Jenkins much more than the traditional historic biopic.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: PG-13
Release date: 2016-12-13

Florence Foster Jenkins is a surprise. On the surface, it's an old-fashioned biopic about an eccentric older socialite who thinks she can sing but cannot. That does not stop her from performing publicly, however. The film could have taken a purely comedic turn, encouraging the audience to laugh at Florence’s attempts at operatic greatness. (After all, its genre is listed as comedy, and humorous it is.) However, the high quality of performances turns this “Emperor’s New Clothes” “remake” into a sympathetic portrayal of a woman, first married before the turn of the 20th century. who overcomes familial and physical limitations to achieve her dreams.

Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins has not yet received enough recognition for this role, likely because critics and audiences expect perfection every time she morphs into a new character. In this film, Streep, who can sing beautifully, screeches into the high notes, weirdly phrases lyrics, and is undeniably flat. Music lover Florence, a talented pianist who, as a child, played at the White House for President Rutherford B. Hayes, loses her ability to play the piano. Yet she never loses her love of music, which, she says, is her life. After she sheds her first husband and receives her inheritance, Florence is finally free to do what she wants. So she becomes a patron of the arts in New York and establish the Verdi Club, whose members adore her and applaud the tableaus, starring Florenc, that entertain them during luncheons.

Florence is aided and abetted in her musical career by her second husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). Because Florence contracted syphilis from her roaming first husband, this second marriage is chaste. She even foots the bill for Bayfield’s separate residence, although she doesn't seem to know (or deludes herself) that he shares his apartment with his mistress and has a great deal of fun throwing parties. That doesn't mean that Bayfield is not supremely loyal to his wife. He ensures that his mistress is hidden from her sight. When his girlfriend threatens to leave him if, during their dinner out, he goes over to a group laughing about his wife’s singing, Bayfield still angrily confronts Florence’s detractors. He loses his romantic partner.

Too often Grant has played cads, but, as Bayfield, he gives one of his best performances. Certainly, St. Clair appreciates Florence’s generosity and the lifestyle it affords him. He is, after all, only a mediocre actor who settled for being sometimes good, but never great. He contents himself by reciting Shakespearean soliloquies before the Verdi Club as part of Florence’s theatrical shows. As Florence’s manager and protector, he dotes upon his wife, making sure she doesn't hear any negative criticism in person or read negative reviews in print. He surrounds her only with an adoring audience. At home after a performance, he solicitously tucks her into bed before leaving for his apartment and other life. Grant is tender in his scenes with Streep, making this improbable union believable.

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The most surprising and gleeful performance comes from Simon Helberg (best known as Howard Walowitz on The Big Bang Theory) as Florence’s talented pianist Cosmé McMoon, who becomes a friend and second protector. At first, during Florence’s voice lesson, he listens incredulously and approaches Bayfield privately to state the obvious -- his mentor / employer should never perform outside the confines of her home. He notes that she always sings flat and worries about his professional reputation if he accompanies her during public performances. When McMoon discovers Bayfield’s life away from Florence, he questions the couple’s relationship and wonders about Bayfield’s sincerity. The audience's entry into and acceptance of Florence's alternate reality comes via McMoon, and Helberg ably portrays the voice of reason who comes to enjoy the fantasy of Florence's world.

Bayfield charismatically pulls McMoon into his orbit, telling him that his devotion to his wife is true, even if love takes many forms, such as a mistress. Bayfield notes the many privileges afforded by the magnanimous Florence, both to himself and McMoon, and explains that “my wife is ill. Singing was her dream, and I’m going to give it to her.” Eventually, the pianist (and audience) is sucked into this strange world designed to bolster Florence’s confidence while keeping her sheltered from anything that might disturb her. He buys Bayfield’s argument when he is asked “Is not ours a happy world? Do we not have fun?”

McMoon becomes part of the team and, in one memorable scene, stoically holds in his laughter following one of Florence’s voice lessons. Only when he is inside an elevator, heading back to reality, does McMoon’s infectious merriment burst forth, despite his trying valiantly to contain it. This honest scene reveals how he professionally regards Florence’s “talent”, although he would never hurt her feelings by being anything less than supportive in her presence. It also illustrates why Helberg's performance sparkles.

These actors’ performances elevate what could have been merely another historic but humorous biography into a poignant story of a wildly eccentric woman and the people who ensured that Florence, like the fabled Emperor of the Hans Christian Andersen story, revels in the unrealistic world made just for her. No one in her inner circle would dare speak the truth about her invisible talent.

Just like the Emperor, Florence is finally confronted by those not carefully screened to applaud and smile -- not guffaw -- during a performance. Unfortunately for Florence, but both humorous for its outrageousness and touching for Streep’s portrayal of bewilderment and innocence lost, this performance takes place at a packed Carnegie Hall.

“People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing” is the key line from the film that is attributed to the real Foster Jenkins. Despite the concert debacle, McMoon is in awe that, because of Florence, he played Carnegie Hall. The main characters’ perspectives on their public performance illustrate how what the public might perceive as negative is turned into something else in their personal lives. This believable transformation of the negative into something positive is the heart of Florence Foster Jenkins.

The cinematography beautifully evokes New York in 1944. The set dressing, props, costumes, and vehicles combine to create an inviting Stephen Frears that encourages viewers to step into a rarefied past. This is the New York of socialites and art patrons, with none of the deprivations of war or harsher reality of the majority of New Yorkers. Although Florence is mindful of the sacrifices of soldiers, she -- and the film -- are nonetheless removed from anything less than sparkling upper-class luxury.

As with all biopics, Florence Foster Jenkins takes some liberties with the truth. Although Streep disappears behind Florence’s expanded waistline and makeup to age her, she still looks younger than the real-life 76-year-old who stood on the Carnegie Hall stage. (Because of the real Florence’s unmistakable, if difficult-to-understand professional popularity during her singing career, several YouTube videos illustrate both the cinematic differences between the real person and a portrayal of her and the uncanny way that Streep vocally captures Florence note for note.) As well, the relationship between Florence and St. Clair is always described as wife and husband on screen, but the reality is that the couple were devoted life partners who never married. Such trivialities do not detract from a film that emphasizes love among its characters, no matter what form it takes.

The Blu-ray/DVD set, with a code to receive the HD digital format, provides a wealth of extras. However, they are only on the Blu-ray disc. Among the special features, the best are the Q&A with Streep, “The Music and Songs of Florence”, and some funny deleted scenes. Of course, the disc contains the expected discussions of the script and costumes. However, this set also includes, for example, unexpected extras like footage from the film’s world premiere.

Viewers who have liked director Stephen Frears’ multiple award-nominated or -winning films The Queen and Philomena should enjoy Florence Foster Jenkins. In these films, Frears proves that he knows how to showcase both intriguing real-life female protagonists and his leading ladies. Although Florence Foster Jenkins might seem to be merely entertaining instead of, for example, providing more provocative insights into the adoption of Philomena’s illegitimate son or the Queen’s reaction to Princess Diana’s death, it is enjoyable and memorable. Viewers who are pulled into Florence’s world can answer Bayfield’s question, “Don’t we have fun?” with a resounding “Yes”.







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