Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
It'll likely surprise absolutely no one that Meryl Streep is pretty great in Stephen Frears' "Florence Foster Jenkins." In fact, a bigger surprise would be if Streep merely phoned in a performance, a phenomenon that is more difficult to find than Donald Trump's tax returns.

However, the woman whom Streep portrays in this biopic is not, in fact, particularly talented. And yet, I'd be willing to bet that anyone who doesn't have a heart of stone will, at some point during the film, soften toward the dowager, a woman who is courageous in the way that some folks whose enthusiasm for artistic creation outweighs actual talent still manage to put themselves out there.

Based on a true story, the film opens with Florence and her husband - St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a doting partner who happens to also have a mistress and another apartment, but who is otherwise dedicated to his wife's vision - hosting events for an arts and music circle that Florence has founded. Florence takes vocal lessons - but, alas, without any success - and, one day, comes up with the notion that she'd like to give a public performance. Bayfield and Florence's handsomely paid vocal instructor have, thus far, led her to believe that her voice is just fine and, therefore, decide to play along with the idea of a concert.

Florence's first performance is a success, in that it is held among a group of friends, who stifle their giggles at her shrieking voice and cheer her for her courage. However, she then gets the idea of playing Carnegie Hall and giving out free tickets to soldiers who have returned from World War II and this throws a wrench in the works, namely because Bayfield won't be able to control a huge crowd of strangers.

As always, Streep completely inhabits her character, a woman who may not realize that her voice doesn't sound quite so good as she seems to think it does, but who is otherwise not fooled easily by others. At a point later in the picture, Florence has a vision of how she believes herself to sound and it's obvious that Streep is actually a good singer (she had some early training). And so it's even more impressive that the actress can do such a good job of recognizing what bad singing sounds like.

As Bayfield, Grant snags one of his best roles in some time and the supporting cast is also very good, especially Simon Helberg as Cosme McMoon, the young pianist whom Bayfield has hired to accompany Florence in concert, and Nina Arianda as a ditzy wife of a society patron of the arts who first laughs aloud at Florence during one of her performances and later, in one of the film's best scenes, becomes one of her defenders.

Frears's filmography has long been a diverse one that includes thrillers, comedies, British dramas and even the occasional genre film (a western and a horror movie). But his best works - "High Fidelity," "The Grifters" and "The Queen," for example - are pictures featuring flawed protagonists for whom we can't help but have affection. "Florence Foster Jenkins" fits into that category and although it's not one of the director's very best, it's still a very enjoyable character piece comedy with a great central performance and a lot of heart.

No comments:

Post a Comment