REVIEW: Florence Foster Jenkins [2016]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 110 minutes | Release Date: May 6th, 2016 (UK)
Studio: 20th Century Fox / Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Stephen Frears
Writer(s): Nicholas Martin

“There is no one quite like you”

I wanted to think that Florence Foster Jenkins intrigues specifically because her story couldn’t occur today as it did then. So many contemporary celebrities willfully embrace their lack of talent now, monetizing themselves into greater successes than those with the merit to earn it. Her level of delusion—to believe she wasn’t being laughed at—is impossible because they crave being the butt of jokes. It supplies them their fifteen minutes with the potential for much, much more. Sometimes they even become so popular that producers find ways to include them in their work for added value to their bottom-line, dismissing the fact that this type of partnership only increases an ever-growing, industry-wide creative bankruptcy. We love the Jenkinses of the world because they just don’t care.

And then I remembered I was wrong. Hollywood doesn’t only support itself with this very phenomenon of decent talent surrounding itself by entourage who strive to keep up appearances and never disappoint their gravy train. It also supplies the means for that talent to think it’s better than it is with box office gross holding more weight than critical or public acclaim. I don’t mean some alternate reality where Adam Sandler never read a bad review while living in a vacuum to believe The Ridiculous 6 won Oscars. No, I’m talking this world. A place where he can sign a contract for millions of dollars to create highly publicized, racist dreck while knowing another deal awaits him when this one dries up. That’s today’s equivalent of 1944’s Jenkins.

But Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping came out earlier this year, a story that’s hilarious because it’s sad. That humor tickles us because it mocks our role in helping bestow fame onto undeserving attention seekers. Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is different. Her intrigue is a direct result of love, not showmanship. She wasn’t trying to make a career out of being tone deaf nor was she stealing hard-earned money during World War II by pretending to be more than who she was. No, Jenkins was a patron of the arts who refused to give up a dream of music when it meant losing her inheritance. And when faulty nerves halted her pianist aspirations as Daddy’s money finally arrived, she still devoted herself to the vocation she loved.

Jenkins’ love for the music trickled down to her husband’s (Hugh Grant‘s St Clair Bayfield) love for her. He adores his wife and would stop at nothing to give her the joy and vibrancy she had given so many others. So he applauds her voice, pays off famous New York City talent to “coach” her with platitudes, and even bribes certain media outlets to write glowing reviews about the atmosphere of Mrs. Jenkins’ concerts rather than the artistry. It was a charmed life of laughter and compassion—one full of music she graciously bankrolled whether Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) or the beloved Verdi Club. A charmed life that probably shouldn’t have been considering her ailment, a revelation that turns her age into nothing less than a miracle.

So yes, she does warrant a film about her because she was a legend in her own right beyond the butt of jokes many dismissed her as. And if Nicholas Martin‘s script spent more time on her perspective rather than the circus surrounding, the story might have been more engrossing than the mawkish farce it often proves. Stephen Frears does a wonderful job directing everything from its period look to the stellar performances—the whole playing in a similarly crowd-pleasing vein as Philomena—but there’s little he can do when the script asks for saccharinely weepy moments of ham-fisted melodrama as plot. He delivers them, we get teary for her cheery disposition and the devoted friends deflecting the world’s cynical gaze away, and the result is merely okay.

Some of the best characters are plot devices and nothing more. For example: Phineas (Stanley Townsend) and Agnes Stark (Nina Arianda) epitomize the two halves of Florence’s story. One a sycophant appreciating Jenkins’ role in making NYC’s music scene great, the other a Brooklyn girl unprepared for the train-wreck about to unfold despite so many glowing comments of vocal genius. The latter does come around to acknowledging the courage Florence shows as well as the reasons why what she’s doing means something despite them not being the singer’s actual intent. She is our stand-in, a newcomer to this world lacking the nuance of the situation but quickly evolving into a champion of Jenkins rather than mean-spirited pedant like the Post‘s Earl Wilson (Christian McKay). Not that he’s wrong.

Wilson’s an interesting character because he’s doing his job. He’s a dick for not opening his eyes to the bigger picture—although attempted bribes don’t help the cause to do so when personal integrity is on the line—but he has a point. The real villain is Bayfield for never coming clean, leading his wife on year after year hoping nothing as extraordinary as Florence renting Carnegie Hall to perform for soldiers could ever happen. But it does occur and he shows grace in traversing the debacle that ensues alongside real fear: not for his reputation, but her health. Unfortunately, how he gets there proves heavy-handed with a girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson‘s Kathleen) we shouldn’t necessarily fault him for that is used as a pawn to expose his adoration.

It happens again and again, characters coming and going when it suits the plot so that we either invest in them the moment they disappear or find we never can because they’re too shallowly drawn to care beyond their role in Jenkins’ big day. Simon Helberg‘s pianist Cosme McMoon is the one exception to this rule. Obviously dealt a hand that positions him to choose friendship and love over selfish career gain time and again, the actor handles it perfectly with authentic emotion while still supplying comic relief. He’s crucial to giving Jenkins her dream as well as embodying her story’s humanity for the audience. The way his outlook shifts bolsters Bayfield’s affections and the tragic elements of Florence’s life fade to reveal a joy that always overcomes.

Helberg’s a big positive to go along with two strong central performances by Grant and Streep. Hugh’s Bayfield moves from reaction-heavy facial expressions for us and cloying affirmation for Florence to a devastatingly heartfelt drive as protector, a husband attempting to protect her life rather than an opportunist trying to make his own easier. The role has depth you don’t initially see and might be forgotten amongst his flashier counterparts. As for Streep—she’s amazing. Radiant when the fire is lit and vulnerable when it isn’t. We laugh with her when she crows like a crazy woman because she’s having such fun in the act. She provides Jenkins an endearing soul that demands our empathy without ever asking. I only wish the film felt as effortless as she.

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