FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS Review

It was late in the summer of 2009. The first weekend of August with the understanding I was now closer to starting a new semester instead of the end of the last one. The Hangover was the break out flick of the summer, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince had us all on pins and needles waiting for the two-part finale that wouldn't come around for more than a year and G.I. Joe had just extinguished any hope of it actually being decent after checking it off on its opening Friday night. And so, just like summer that first weekend in August was coming to an end, but before it did a friend asked me if I wanted to join him and a few others to see Julie & Julia on that Sunday afternoon. I wasn't familiar with Julia Child, I wasn't overly interested in the film, but I knew Meryl Streep was in it and who doesn't have a soft spot for Nora Ephron, right? Strangely enough, Julie & Julia has become one of those movies that hits just the right comforting spot when in need of something to view on a rainy night or lazy weekend afternoon. It is a unique true life story that is able to convey some major life themes and the struggles as much entails through something we all, to some degree, have in common: cooking. All of this is to say that, given the time of year and somewhat similar subject matter (true story, I mean) I was hoping to have very much the same warm reception to this new Streep vehicle as I did that Ephron's final picture. To be fair, Florence Foster Jenkins has a lot of charm and beyond the obvious intrigue of having one of the planet's greatest actors in the lead with such steadfast support from Hugh Grant and a notable turn from The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg not to mention the film was directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena). Essentially, the credentials for this thing are through the roof as far as creating something reliably entertaining goes, but that's the thing-Florence Foster Jenkins is reliable and little more. The film hits the expected and necessary moments for the audience to understand the story and feel just enough sympathy for the right characters, but there is nothing about the film that transcends the standard or average conventions this type of movie fits into. This is a bit ironic considering the film tells the story of a woman who defied conventions and expectations despite not having the talent to match her ambition whereas this feature film version of her life has all the talent and tools at their dispense to defy as much, but delivers a final product more tedious than tremendous.

Florence Jenkins (Meryl Streep) and St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) are a formidable pair in Florence Foster Jenkins.
The true story of the real Florence Foster Jenkins seems to hue very close to what we're presented in Frears' film. Not that this is necessarily surprising, one of the pitfalls the script seems to fall into is being blandly straightforward. Streep plays Jenkins who was a prominent figure in the New York arts scene for the better part of the 20th century up until her death in 1944. Jenkins had a flair for herself and her talent that Streep is able to convey as coming off not necessarily as unaware or ignorant, but more in the fashion of her wealth giving her a big enough reason to never feel self-conscious. Jenkins was a woman who loved music. She tells us by relaying it to new piano accomplist Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) that she took piano lessons up until the age of fifteen eventually attending the Philadelphia Academy of Music. McMoon seems shocked by this revelation not because he's heard her play, but because her reputation precedes her as this wonderful talent when in reality she was in all likelihood tone deaf and by all accounts a terrible singer. The more interesting approach to the story of Mrs. Jenkins might have been to examine how such a person with the desire and ambition, but not necessarily the required talent to become a singer became such a beloved figure among this social scene, but instead, Nicholas Martin's script begins as all of this has already been established. The film quickly brushes over that Jenkins inherited a large sum of money from her father that allowed her to begin programming musical recitals. It shows us in the first scene that Jenkins began performing in those recitals to enthusiastic reactions likely due more to her sizable contributions than her stunningly beautiful singing voice. Rather, the film sets itself up to pull back the layers of how Jenkins' husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), kept up the facade that his partner was as skilled as she thought she was and that the world largely shared that same opinion. It's a fine enough way to go about trying to understand the character and there are interesting shades to the marriage dynamic at the core of the film, but rather than really exploring such avenues, Florence Foster Jenkins simply skims the surface in order to deliver a movie that goes from laughing at to laughing with the titular character in hapless fashion.  

This idea of whether or not the movie is on Jenkins' side the whole time is the inherent question the subject matter comes with and is the basic flaw that Martin's script isn't sure it can resolve from the get-go. At one point, the opening scene is befuddling as it is made clear both Bayfield and Jenkins are more or less running the joint in which they are putting on a show and Jenkins is changing from one extravagant costume to the next and acting as if all eyes are on her while doing very little once on stage. It is fundamentally funny, but when this is true of a subject one is going to try and pull real emotional weight out of the tricky part is not how to get the audience to laugh at her-that's going to inevitably happen, but rather how to make viewers sympathize with someone so willing to look like a fool and even further, genuinely act incognizant of those actions. The truth is it's a good thing Frears and Martin have Streep to walk this fine line and ultimately pull us over to the side of the dilemma that finds us not only feeling for Jenkins in her self-created predicament, but rooting for her to prove her critics wrong even though we know she is physically incapable of doing so. Raw talent, folks. This is all to say that per usual, Streep is great. What exactly does she do here that again proves her unrelenting talent and charm? Easy-she uses it to make an untalented person the most effortlessly charismatic individual on screen without seeming to try. There is no forced attempt to make Jenkins cooler than she actually was, but instead by playing her as this wholly confident woman who tends to think of herself as a kind of hotshot Streep begins to dispel the actual delusion that is occurring.

Florence and St. Clair find a common ally in pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg).
This would typically be enough to move an audience from one side of the fence to the other, but Streep utilizes small moments and pieces of dialogue in Martin's screenplay to take our sympathy for Jenkins one step further. After seeing an Opera at Carnegie Hall Jenkins comments on what it must be like to hold so many people in the palm of your hand simply by the power of your voice. It is a slight nod to the fact she understands her own voice isn't of the caliber of what she just witnessed-humbling the audience to her-while at the same time inspiring her to take up singing again signaling Jenkins true inability to admit her talent doesn't match her ambition. The difference here is that Jenkins has the money and influence to the point she doesn't have to outwardly deal with the pain of admitting such truths, but that this pain still shows itself every once in a while through Streep's reflective glances give the character a depth that is impossible to laugh at and instead becomes admirable to the point of rousing. Whether the lesson here is right or wrong, the fact such compassion comes to be is a testament to Streep's performance.

While Streep is clearly the saving grace and center point of Florence Foster Jenkins, she is not the only positive the film has to offer. As stated previously, both Grant and Helberg give two very different, but equally complimentary performances to Streep's title role. As the sun sets on our first night with Jenkins and Bayfield we become privy to the fact Jenkins is sick, though from what we're not sure unless one knows prior to seeing the film. We cheesily grin at the sweetness of Bayfield reciting lines of dialogue he once performed as he was once a somewhat accomplished English actor, but as Jenkins falls asleep and Bayfield slips away from what we assume is their house to fall into the arms of another woman, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), things become not so clear. The complexities of their relationship provide fertile ground to explore why Jenkins not only acts oblivious in regards to her singing abilities, but that she possibly does so because she's been forced to do as much with other parts of her life as well. The film doesn't dig too deep into this territory and introduces Helberg's McMoon as something of our surrogate in a swift enough time frame that it relies on this set of circumstances more for the use of comedy than it does character development. As McMoon, Helberg is both restrained and beyond quirky. A squirrely figure with a memorable giggle and a particular body language that gives the impression he's working tremendously hard to hold back who he really is among this aristocratic society he so desires to be a part of. That McMoon eventually becomes Bayfield's right hand man of sorts in upholding their beloved Florence's delusion provides for a handful of nice moments with the aesthetic, time period, and overall space the film occupies making it feel all the more enjoyable. Florence Foster Jenkins is by no means a bad movie, but like Jenkins' world it is a harmless and happy diversion that does little to leave any impression as the credits roll.