Wednesday, August 10, 2016

“Florence Foster Jenkins”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of The New York City Premiere of the new comedy-drama, “Florence Foster Jenkins” , starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. 


When a wealthy socialite attempts a singing career, can she succeed despite her lack of talent or will she be forced to confront the reality she fears?



In 1944, the end of the second World War seemed nowhere in sight.  Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep), a well-heeled New York City socialite and known patron of the arts, wishes to support the American troops by various fundraising efforts in collaboration with her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Grant).  As a lifelong lover of music, she gifts some money to her friend, the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, so that he and noted opera singer Lily Pons can put on a show at Carnegie Hall. Upon seeing the performance, Florence becomes inspired to sing herself; this would fulfill two of her great desires –namely, a career in the world of music and also raising money for the war effort. 

Florence and St. Clair hire  Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), a talented pianist, to accompany her.  After many rehearsals and vocal lessons, it becomes painfully clear to everyone except Florence that she has zero singing ability.  However, being an affluent woman who is financing everyone’s life, no one is about to tell the empress that she isn’t wearing any clothes; as a result, they all agree to allow her to live her delusion.  Hoping to provide a positive experience for his wife’s debut as a performer, St. Clair pads the audience with people whom he believes will provide a favorable response.  Hearing her, some of the true music lovers are aghast, while the rest struggle to suppress laughter. 

Rather than be discouraged by this reception, Florence is emboldened.  She records a song and sends it to a local radio station; when it gets played on the air, it becomes the most popular recording on the show, providing Florence with considerable notoriety.  The audience clamors for requests to not only play it but purchase it as well.  Gaining in popularity, Florence arranges with Carnegie Hall to stage her own performance there, where she will give away a thousand tickets to members of the military.  St. Clair and Cosme are understandably worried.  They have been dutifully shielding Florence from reality and are concerned that if she finds out the truth about her singing, she will be heartbroken.  Ultimately, they are unable to dissuade Florence from performing.  On the night of her concert, will she be rewarded with the acclaim she so desperately seeks or will she suffer the greatest humiliation of her life? 


“Florence Foster Jenkins” is based on true events, bringing into the forefront the astonishing life of someone who had a brief amount of fame in the 1940’s and has long since been largely forgotten.  The movie itself is equally forgettable.  Its attempts at humor descend to a level of a second rate situation comedy in dire need of cancellation while its efforts towards the more serious veer irrevocably towards the melodramatic.  With characters drawn as broadly as the three main ones in this story, it’s asking too much of the audience to abruptly shift gears from silly to tragic. 

Not even a performance by the great Meryl Streep proves enough to elevate this movie.  While laughs abound the first time you hear Streep’s character attempt to sing – not to mention the humorous reactions by Grant and Helberg – the joke grows weary before too long.  The movie then goes to great lengths to make the audience appreciate that this is the tale of a real human being, but by then it is far too late; the perception that this person is merely a cartoon character has already been so ingrained in the mind of the viewer that convincing us to change our perspective is a Sisyphean task, to put it mildly.

While Helberg’s character truly existed in real life, the way he is portrayed in “Florence Foster Jenkins” would understandably make an audience believe that he is merely the figment of a desperate screenwriter’s imagination.  For one thing, Cosme comes across as someone who either is a grown adult with childlike naiveté or a guy who’s just plain stupid.  Exactly why he would honestly think that everyone around Florence actually took her to be a serious talent instead of just glomming off her money defies explanation.  Ultimately, it’s too bad that the filmmakers didn’t adhere to a simple rule:  If the story is too good to be true, then make it a documentary instead. 

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) on IMDb

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