Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Nicholas Martin
Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg.

A year ago I came across an “article” from The Onion that perfectly describes the types of movies Meryl Streep makes: not great, but a perfect opportunities to show off her acting abilities. The tongue in cheek post, written as if penned by Streep herself, asks the reader to name one single masterpiece of cinema she has starred in. In spite of the fact that she is the most nominated actor in Oscar history and has appeared in movies by some of the best directors of all time, she really hasn’t appeared in a great movie. She has been in fun movies (Death Becomes Her), good movies even (Silkwood), and has definitely turned in mesmerizing performances, but her movies run from fine (Doubt), to mediocre (Suffragette), to sometimes horrible (She-Devil). It is Streep who is iconic, not her movies. Once again, this holds true in her latest role in Stephen Fears’ new film, Florence Foster Jenkins.

Before I get to the movie, let’s talk real quick about the film’s director. The first film by the director I’ve seen is My Beautiful Laundrette, and while I haven’t seen all of his movies, including some considered classics, I have watched several: Mary Reilly, High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, Mrs Henderson Presents, The Queen, and Philomena. When looking back at the movies he’s made, it becomes immediately clear that this is a fine marriage between actor and director, since Frears’ movies tend to be more actor showcases than great films – a chance for someone, usually an actress, to perform well and command the screen. It’s not by chance that so many of those films resulted in a best actress nomination for their leads (Judi Dench twice and Helen Mirren even winning).

Meryl Streep has already been getting a few nominations (Golden Globe, SAG, likely an Oscar nom) for her performance in the title role, but are they merited? This is one of those films that kinda prove that no matter what the actress appears in, a nomination will be awarded. The actress plays bald with a wig (just like in August: Osage County), suffering of syphilis (she did that in Out of Africa), she sings in the movie (A Prairie Home Companion, Mamma Mia!), she performs at Carnegie Hall (Music of the Heart) – basically this movie watches as a compilation of Streep’s repertoire and best of. How could an Oscar nomination not come her way? The trouble is that the film is just not very good. Beyond a very weak premise, the tone is all over the place, and the film never quite figures out what it wants to be.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a New York City socialite who loved the arts, unfortunately the arts simply did not love her back. She craved to be an opera singer, but her singing abilities were… well… they really really really sucked. So her husband would organize special concerts attended only by close friends so that Jenkins’ ego could be spared the humiliation of finding out that she was not a good singer after all. There’s not much story beyond that. Jenkins suffers from syphilis inflicted upon her by her first husband, she lives separately from her current one but they seem to share some kind of love or at least tenderness, and that’s it. The tone is also extremely bizarre, at turns it is a slapstick comedy with pratfalls and gags, other times it hits the melodrama so hard it might as well slap you in the face, and other times yet it coasts somewhere in the land of dull and boring. Whoever wrote this script (first time movie writer Nicholas Martin, apparently) had no idea what he was doing. It’s amazing he managed such a pedigreed cast and director for this project!

A quick note on the two male actors in the film. Hugh Grant plays Streep’s character’s husband St. Clair Bayfield, and I guess he’s fine. I’ve never been the actor’s biggest fan because he doesn’t stretch much – he just does that Hugh Grant thing, but he’s had a pretty decent career, so why change now? His job as the adulterous yet loving consort is acceptable, even if it’s not all that impressive, but for some reason he’s getting more nominations than Streep this time around. Simon Helberg on the other hand infuriated me. Most people know him as one of the geeks from The Big Bang Theory, and inexplicably the actor has managed to receive a Golden Globe nomination for a performance so offensive I wanted to stop watching the movie several times. Hired to be Jenkins’ piano player, the actor plays Cosmé McMoon, and I guess the actor still belongs to a time when playing a gay character to him means that he must affect every cliche and offensive mannerism possible, coupled with a bizarre voice alteration, pursed lips, and Dracula-like hand gestures. It was a parody, and a tired one at that.

The movie drags at time because it tries to stretch not a lot of story over the course of 110 minutes of screen time. It doesn’t really have a reason to be, other than try to lend some humanity to what could have been a one note joke. Except that it takes that joke and tries to retell it so many times that it’s stops being funny before the halfway point. This is the definition of an unnecessary movie if I’ve ever seen one. It’s fine, but just nothing special. Just like Florence Foster Jenkins’ unexceptional voice.

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