Typical. You wait forever for a movie about Florence Foster Jenkins, and then two come along at once. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of Jenkins before this film entered my radar a few months back, but it’s easy to see what drew multiple filmmakers to her: She’s a great story. Jenkins was a real person, a rich socialite and music lover who lived in New York in the early 20th century and enjoyed performing amateur operatics, which is all well and good, except she was a terrible singer: always off-key, probably tone-deaf, and worst of all, she chose really difficult pieces to sing that would have challenged even talented professionals. She died in 1944, having given only one truly open-to-the-public performance, but recordings of her “singing” live on. Unfortunately.
Why FFJ is suddenly considered a great story today, why she is of 21st-century interest, are questions at least as intriguing as Florence Foster Jenkins the movie itself is. Is it down to the popularity of YouTube and American Idol, which can make anyone a star regardless of talent? Jenkins’ one public performance — at Carnegie Hall, of all places, in 1944 — was indeed a sellout, as we see in FFJ, though she died not long after. She was suffering from advanced, incurable syphilis, true, but it’s easy to see that her fatal heart attack might have been brought on by the scathing reviews by music critics that she could suddenly no longer avoid, reviews she had previously been studiously protected from by dint of the fact that critics were not allowed into her private performances. Are we fascinated by the differences between then and now, when negative reviews are embraced by some as evidence that hoity-toity intellectual critics are out of touch with the common man (or woman)? Or is awfulness timeless?
Unfortunately, it’s tough to find any genuine modern resonance in Florence Foster Jenkins, as there was in the recent French film Marguerite. (It is beyond unreasonable to expect that anyone could refrain from comparing the two films. Sorry.) Xavier Giannoli’s bravura tragicomedy, a highly fictionalized version of FFJ’s saga, is far more sensitively attuned to the battle between talent and passion, and to the notion that, perhaps, what art gives us is more important than what we give art. But that movie had subtitles, and it didn’t have Meryl Streep.
Now, to be fair, Meryl Streep (Suffragette, Ricki and the Flash) as FFJ, dowdied up in period costume and doddering around in apparently deliberate cluelessness about her lack of talent, is pretty amusing. And when FFJ sticks to the farce it starts out as, it works wonderfully, embracing a charming silliness that’s like something P.G. Wodehouse might have loved. (FFJ as a devotee of potato salad — yes, this is a thing, though I don’t know how true to life it is — results in one of the funniest visual jokes I’ve seen onscreen in ages.) There’s a mysterious briefcase Jenkins carries around that sort of works as farce — what secrets could this rich old fool possibly have? — but it probably needs more buildup to make the payoff work. Simon Helberg, from TV’s Big Bang Theory, actually steals the movie from Streep as Cosme McMoon — apparently that was his real name! — the piano player hired to accompany Jenkins’s ear-piercing singing who fears for his own reputation even as he is won over by her enthusiasm. One scene in which Jenkins and McMoon tinkle out a tune together on the piano is lovely, and finds that just-right balance between silly and sentimental.
But the longer FFJ goes on, the more maudlin it gets, which is increasingly jarring given the glorious goofiness with which it launches itself. Hugh Grant (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Cloud Atlas) as Jenkins’s husband, St Clair Bayfield, finds a sort of sneaky chill as a man who might be genuinely devoted to his wife, or might be indulging her for nefarious reasons of his own; he could be a comic villain, or a comic knight in shining armor, and either one would be great, and it’s even better when you’re not sure which he is. But screenwriter Nicholas Martin — a TV writer making his feature debut — chooses to reveal a secret about Bayfield’s life apart from Jenkins that appears to solve the riddle in one direction while the overall depiction of their relationship goes in precisely the other direction. What had once been deliciously ambiguous is now tediously concrete, and in the least plausible way possible. It wants to sell us on a foundation of the Jenkins-Bayfield marriage that is not supported by the rest of the film.
This is a shame. Director Stephen Frears has made some great movies — Philomena; The Queen — based on true stories about real women that are startlingly good at finding a harmony between profound emotion and the preposterousness of the situations they find themselves in. I don’t know what happened here to make him lose his way, but his Florence Foster Jenkins is little more than a trifle — an enjoyable trifle, but still — that does not linger any longer than Jenkins’s high notes.