Directed by: Stephen Frears
Premise: Based on a true story. Set in the 1940s, an aging heiress (Meryl Streep) fulfills her dream of being an opera singer. But she has no musical talent and her husband (Hugh Grant) maintains his wife’s illusion by concealing the truth.
What Works: Florence Foster Jenkins is a master class in managing the audience’s sympathies and turning deplorable characters into a cast of likable and accessible people. For starters, it’s very funny the movie has an earnestness that’s disarming. This is best exemplified by Meryl Streep in the title role. Foster Jenkins is a wealthy woman who fancies herself a musician and uses her power and privilege to thrust herself onto the public stage. But she also spends her fortune as a patron of the arts and music is a joy that alleviates her struggle with illness. That makes her sympathetic and Streep plays Foster Jenkins as a sweet old lady who pursues music purely out of passion. The charm and sincerity that Streep brings to the role is overwhelming and puts the audience on her side. Florence Foster Jenkins also features an impressive supporting performance by Simon Helberg as pianist Cosme McMoon. Helberg is the proxy for the audience as he is won over by Foster Jenkins’ enthusiasm.
What Doesn’t: Florence Foster Jenkins has mixed success as a period film. Some aspects of this movie look great such as the streets of 1940s era New York but other period details aren’t as convincing. Some of the costumes and set dressings look less like the objects of a real place in which people live and more like the fabricated props of a movie set or the artifacts of a museum exhibit. But the bigger problem of Florence Foster Jenkins is the idea at the center of it. Foster Jenkins is a woman of privilege who essentially buys her way onto the stage at Carnegie Hall; the moviemakers are very careful with this, portraying her as sheltered and oblivious because of the echo chamber of disingenuous praise that her husband has constructed around her. But she is on that stage because of her money and not her talent. Instead of getting angry about that or regarding Foster Jenkins as a pitiful or tragic character, the filmmakers expect the audience to be on her side. We’re to sympathize with Foster Jenkins not because she’s a misunderstood artist (she isn’t) but because she feels so passionately about music; according to the filmmakers we ought to overlook or excuse the badness of her performance because it might hurt her feelings. This is emotional reasoning and the antithesis of music appreciation. The film successfully invests us in Foster Jenkins’ f s has to a villain is a New York Post music critic who points out the obvious fact that this woman is an awful singer and he says so in print. But it would seem that the real villain of Florence Foster Jenkins is not the critic who has the gall to tell a rich old lady that she’s a lousy performer but the sycophants and enablers who convince this woman that she’s a great singer and appeal to her vanity for cruel amusement and financial gain. Worse, this movie hides behind Foster Jenkins’ popularity—especially with war veterans—to amplify our sympathies and it holds up that popularity as a shield against legitimate criticism. The fact that she is adored by the public does not make up for the quality of her work any more than the box office receipts of Michael Bay’s most recent Transformers movie or the number of Netflix views of Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous Six somehow redeem those pieces of crap. In this respect there is something insidious about the way Florence Foster Jenkins invites us to lower out expectations, a hallmark excuse of hack artists.
Bottom Line: There’s no denying that Florence Foster Jenkins is an enjoyable movie and it has some very good performances by Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg. But as a movie about art appreciation this is about as far as it could be from Music of the Heart.
Episode: #612 (September 18, 2016)