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‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ Sings Again – and Again and Again

Thelma Adams, Film Editor, August 11, 2016

A ghastly moment concludes Florence Foster Jenkins.  The titular arts patron with the rancid voice — Jenkins booked herself into Carnegie Hall before her death from complications of syphilis in 1944– played with brio by Meryl Streep, says something to the effect of “I can’t sing but I’m still singing.” And, like most of the movie, it’s said in boldface ready to be embroidered on a pillow. (The sentiment recalls Mamma Cass Elliott’s 1969 top 40’s hit with the lyrics “…make your own kind of music sing your own special song,…even if nobody else sings along.”)

The irony is that Streep, who can almost do no wrong, can sing (her blockbuster Mamma Mia! or her Robert Altman beautiful oddity A Prairie Home Companion). The actress enjoys it. And this peculiar, plodding end-of-life comic biopic has the Oscar-winner warbling in a key that makes dogs weep proves that she can even sing badly.

Unfortunately, the movie lumbers along, out of tune and out of step, a chorus girl destined to marry an usher.

A potentially fascinating subject exists here: a wealthy woman who loves to perform and the devoted younger husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who enables her while keeping a younger piece on the side. Yet in the hands of the often-terrific Stephen Frears (from My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen and Philomena), and the fumbling screenwriter Nicholas Martin (a journeyman BBC TV scribe with a string of Midsomer Murder episodes under his belt), it’s a BBC hot mess. With lovely period costumes and decor, naturally, but a dearth of emotional interiors.

Florence Foster Jenkins plays like the vanity project Streep doesn’t need. The actress herself is unusually fussy under a mask of face powder trapped in wrinkles. She wears an occasional turban that gives her a Sunset Boulevard vibe, and displays a matronly figure that recalls the Marx Brothers foil Margaret Dumont. It can be argued that this was who Ms. Jenkins was: but that doesn’t excuse the way in which she never seems to come to real life with the richness of, for example, Streep’s Margaret Thatcher, a bug trapped in history’s amber.

Thanks to the underwhelming team of Frears and Martin, the central performance suffers from an Alka-Seltzer inducing mix of parody and pathos that colors the entire endeavor. The material could have used a full-out comedic plot in the P. G. Wodehouse vein, or else a deeper dive. Or even something slyly sophisticated like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Instead it gets lost in the shallows — along with Streep’s Oscar chances.

Grant, as the devoted-in-his-own-way husband, attempts to charm. As a fan, I root for him. Charming, after all, is Grant’s stock in trade. C’mon Hugh, pull it out, lighten it up. But his teethy smiles, wincey grins, and one ridiculous full-out dance number don’t meld into a supporting performance that should be both funny and touching – and land an Oscar nomination. Like Streep, he, too, is better than the material. He gamely tries to make it work but bends under the movie’s weight, sacrificing that part of his performances that always appeared effortless even at their most stuttery.

Along comes Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg as the nervous, naïve accompanist making his Carnegie Hall debut alongside his patron, Jenkins. The TV comedian needed the firm hand of a director to keep all those ticks and wiggles and eyebrow lifts at bay, the inappropriate hysterical giggles that bubble forth as if waiting to join the sitcom laugh track. That firm hand is what Helberg needed. It’s what the audience needed. That’s not what we got.

Because of all this, Florence Foster Jenkins is mid-summer minor Streep. Perhaps you will see it on a plane in the fall, and laugh at the bits and pieces while the oversized gentleman strapped in the seat beside you battles for control of the shared armrest. Sing along, if you really want to mortify your fellow passenger.


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