Friday, December 9, 2016

"Florence Foster Jenkins" Offers Great Performances

At first, I thought it was a little strange to be making a film about Florence Foster Jenkins, who gained her notoriety for being an enthusiastically awful would-be opera singer. She was a great lover and supporter of classical music who, alas, was completely deluded about her own talent. Jenkins attracted a loyal following and became a cult figure in her day, even making records and playing Carnegie Hall in 1944. However, the thought of a film biopic, starring Meryl Streep, made me itch with secondhand embarrassment. Rubbernecking an awful singer feels more appropriate as fodder for Youtube than a prestige pic.

I'm so glad to be proven wrong. The film, wisely, is not just about Florence Foster Jenkins, but also about two men who supported her endeavors in her later years. One is her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who attends to Florence's every need, but goes home to another woman, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), at the end of the night. The other, our POV character, is a young pianist named Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), who is hired as an accompanist for Florence's lessons with famed vocal coach, Carlo Edwards (David Haig). Initially Cosmé thinks he's lucked into the well-paying gig, but finds out exactly how bad Florence's singing is at the same time the audience does, and is aghast when he learns that she intends to perform.

And little by little, as the mysteries of Florence's past and circumstances are revealed, the film also reveals itself to be not about mocking the figure of Florence Foster Jenkins, but empathizing with her, and appreciating her for who she was. Director Stephen Frears has orchestrated a remarkably funny, but also immensely touching, gentle film that gives Florence her due. With her ornate costumes, enthusiastic butchering of famous arias, and blissful unawareness, the recreated performances have to be seen (and heard) to be believed. But the best moments are the quieter, personal ones where she's enjoying music with Cosmé or being reassured for the millionth time by her ever-patient husband. Whatever can be said about Florence Foster Jenkins, it wasn't just her terrible singing that attracted so many admirers.

Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, and fearlessly delivers all the off key warbling necessary to make Florence come alive, As someone who grew up around a lot of classical music, I got a real kick out of her murdering "Die Fledermaus" and "The Magic Flute." However, I think the best performance here is Hugh Grant's. In the beginning St. Clair comes off as so overeager to please that he's a little suspicious. Is he conning Florence to get her to fund his life with Kathleen? Is his overprotectiveness hiding something more sinister? Surely he doesn't actually think Florence is a good singer, does he? Grant keeps St. Clair utterly charming and sympathetic throughout, and I'm glad that he's finally nabbed another role worthy of his comic talents.

And then there's Simon Helberg, who is playing to type, but he's such a perfect audience surrogate. As the newcomer to Florence's circle, he's the only one not in on the game, and conveys exactly the right amount of incredulous disbelief and cognitive dissonance when Madame Florence opens her mouth. Outside of the central trio of characters, the cast is unusually sparse. Rebecca Hall is wasted as Kathleen, with little to do but be the typical worried girlfriend. Nina Arianda, however, nearly steals the picture a few times as a bombastic showgirl named Agnes. She's recently married to one of Florence's supporters, and threatens to be a disruption at her concerts.

"Florence Foster Jenkins" is ultimately a very modest picture, very small scale and heavily dependent on its main performances. And it's the right size for the story of Florence, who is only able to exist as she does in the carefully constructed and well-guarded bubble that St. Clair and her friends maintain for her. I found myself comparing the film to "Goodbye Lenin!" and "Lars and the Real Girl," other charming, low-key films about people going to extreme lengths to try and accommodate the delusions of their loved ones. And like those films, "Florence Foster Jenkins" is refreshingly good natured, where the real triumph is human kindness winning out over easy cynicism.

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