Movie Review – Florence Foster Jenkins
This film has been nominated for four Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Meryl Streep won Best Actress in a Comedy at the Critics Choice Awards. She and Hugh Grant were both nominated for Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. The likelihood that Streep will get an Oscar nomination for this is very strong. After all, she’s Meryl Streep. The Academy Awards seems to nominate her for any and everything she does. If the Academy recognizes her again, it will be her 20th Oscar nomination.
This film was directed by Stephen Frears. A lot of the movies he’s made have been nominated for Oscars, including My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), The Grifters (1990), Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005), The Queen (2006) and Philomena (2013). Again, the likelihood that this film will also be mentioned on January 24, 2017 is very strong. If not for the acting, then it might be recognized for the costuming. The dresses Streep wears in this film are pretty impeccable.
Meryl Streep stars as Florence Foster Jenkins, a woman who lived from 1869 to 1944. She was an aspiring musician who specialized in piano playing. An arm injury curbed her career as a pianist, but she inherited a lot of money from her father who was a lawyer and a land-owner. She used that money to fund her career as a singer. The problem is she isn’t a good singer.
Hugh Grant (Four Weddings and a Funeral and About a Boy) co-stars as St. Clair Bayfield, a Shakespearean actor with whom Florence started living in 1909 until she died. He managed a lot of her affairs and did his best to keep her from realizing that she’s a terrible singer.
Simon Helberg (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Big Bang Theory) also co-stars as Cosmé McMoon, a piano accompanist who is hired a month or so before Florence performs at Carnegie Hall in 1944. He realizes that Florence is a terrible singer and he tries to tell that to St. Clair but St. Clair basically bribes Cosmé and anyone else from letting Florence know the truth outside of her tone-deaf bubble. It’s also implied that Cosmé is gay.
Written by Nicholas Martin, the story is based on true events and real people, but there was no confirmation that Cosmé was gay, except for the reality that he died never having been married. The choice here seems to lean toward him being homosexual, which is fine. What’s more troubling is that his sexuality was unclear but his ethnicity wasn’t. Cosmé was Mexican-American, yet the actor playing him isn’t. Helberg is white for all intents and purposes, Jewish but white.
Frears directs this comedy with a bubbly, bright and light-hearted nature not unlike Mrs. Henderson Presents and Philomena, although Philomena still had somewhat of a dark edge to it. This film seems like it’s nothing but fluff. One’s tolerance of it will probably equate to one’s tolerance of listening to bad singing, while others around it squirm or grin-and-bear it.
The question is what is the takeaway from this film. Florence Foster Jenkins was like the William Hung or the Tommy Wiseau of the early 20th century. Historically speaking, Florence’s concert at Carnegie Hall is one of the most requested programs from Carnegie Hall’s archives. William Hung was a Chinese contestant on the third season of American Idol who became popular in 2004 for being a terrible singer. Yet, people liked him for his bad performances. Tommy Wiseau is a filmmaker who made the bad movie The Room (2003), which has since become a cult classic, and people pay to see it. Perhaps, people saw Florence in that way.
The issue in this film is that unlike William Hung and Tommy Wiseau, Florence doesn’t seem to be in on the joke. It’s okay if people laugh at or mock Florence as long as she knows that that’s what they’re doing. She is instead blissfully ignorant, and St. Clair is maintaining that ignorance and the reason why is problematic. The final scene of the movie also suggests that the message here is that it’s better to give in to one’s delusion. There’s this idea in her head that she’s this great singer when in reality she’s not. Maintaining this idea is the definition of delusional and the film promotes that, which isn’t ultimately healthy.
Because Florence is a wealthy white woman, she can get away with it, but it’s at the expense of actual singers who are genuinely talented. At the Carnegie Hall performance, supporters of Florence angrily yell at the audience of military men, bullying them into applauding. They are being honest and are strangely chastised for it. When Florence finally has her realization, she isn’t mad or upset at St. Clair. His deception is given a pass. Again, the movie rewards lies and deceit, or at least doesn’t challenge it.
It’s a film that really believes that egotism is the most important thing. Therefore, not only is Florence Foster Jenkins tone-deaf but so are the filmmakers.
Rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 50 mins.