“Music has been and is my life.”
What an absolutely abysmal, ingratiating, self-righteous film this one is. Florence Foster Jenkins somehow unfolds both slowly and abruptly, similar to the worst American Idol audition you’ve ever seen, managing to make mere minutes feel like an hour. Stephen Frears’ latest is the William Hung of biopics: misguided, errant, annoyingly tone-deaf. Critiquing a story like this is futile because its head is either so far up in the clouds or its own rear end that it cannot understand or capably see the truth. There’s a difference between being a starry-eyed dreamer with a Rosie the Riveter attitude or a privileged socialite living the high life of accommodation and indulgence. Florence Foster Jenkins practically goads us into finding it exasperating. I for one did.
Florence (Meryl Streep) is a preservationist of music and theater. She runs the Verdi Club in 1944 New York, admirably serving as a proponent of the art’s necessary vitality during wartime, bringing a little bit of light to one of our darkest passages in human history. Beside her throughout is husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a stage actor who never made it big but nevertheless appeases his wife, performing in her shows while Florence often casts herself as the lead. It pains me to read the film’s billing as an “unbelievable true story,” mostly because it never once suspends your convictions. In fact, the most remarkable part of Florence’s life – that she lived for 50+ years after contracting syphilis from her first husband – is simply glossed over. Frears wants to present Florence as a spectacle, but instead she comes off as a three-legged show dog who swallowed a chew toy.
It’s never very clear how we’re supposed to feel about Florence; even in the film’s most dramatic moments characters are surprised by or shun her very presence. She’s always there regardless, in the physical form or haunting over our supporting cast with the possibility that she might show up. So as she thrusts herself into performing – through clout and not esteem – we’re left to wonder what anybody actually thinks of Florence. Her hired pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) surely sees her as an off-pitch hack, and the New York Post’s critic is game to call her bluff the indulgent charade it seems to be. In the end, what makes Florence Foster Jenkins so abhorrent is that it refuses to acknowledge truth. Whether it be bribed positive reviews, bold-faced lies, or carefully packaged deception, the film would rather be hokey than hunker down with conflict. You can’t confront an issue by simply squealing with both eyes closed.
You gotta give Streep credit though; how many actresses can pull off being this godawful? And yet, like most of her recent work, I couldn’t help but realize I was watching her act her blessed heart out. Imagine if she just did less…it’d be unequaled. Not since 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada has she managed to completely disappear into a role. Don’t expect much better from Helberg either, giving one of the worst performances I’ve seen this year. Every movement, every inflection, every expression of his so choreographed and lacking delicacy. We might see the first Oscar nom for Grant despite his character’s lack of depth; in a stale summer, he brings the tip-toeing airiness and classical aura of Golden Era cinema. Florence Foster Jenkins has typically gorgeous set designs and a more than willing cast, but is noticeably more a carnival act than it is a cathartic or moving piece of telegraphed drama. Either steer clear or bring the earmuffs.
“They’re all rather heavy-handed, I’m afraid.”
Rating: 1 out of 5