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Movie Review: #FlorenceFosterJenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins demands your laughter, then punishes you for even thinking about it.

Review by Matt Cummings

To be fair and completely honest, the period dramedy Florence Foster Jenkins wasn't exactly on my list of summer-must-sees; and to its credit, the film is well cast, proficiently acted and directed, and looks terrific. But the final effect is missing something, and I think I have the answer.

For New York patron of the arts Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), life for the 1940's socialite is filled with music and lavish gatherings. But Florence hides two important secrets: she contracted syphilis from her first husband, and as a result she cannot hear herself too well. She also desires to be an opera singer, but is blissfully unaware that she can't sing. I mean she's awful, dreadful, even comical according to some. But her husband St Clair (Hugh Grant) dutifully supports her anyways by hiring a pianist Cosme (Simon Helberg), who is also unaware of her issue until she begins to belt out one disaster after another. Florence also doesn't realize that St Clair has a rowdy girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson), and that he dashes out at night while her illness has left her bald and quite physically damaged. As her desire to perform in public grows (but her singing fails to improve), Cosme and St Clair struggle to keep Florence grounded, even though she books an evening at the venerable Carnegie Hall. Unaware of the impending wave of negative criticism she's about to unleash against herself, Florence Foster Jenkins steps onto the stage determined to live out her life's ambition, even if it kills her.

At first glance, one might assume that FFJ is all about a self-delusional woman whose incredible wealth allowed her to live a life that many would consider overly privileged. But the film directed by Steven Frears attempts to make Jenkins both a comic figure and a tragic lesson about the vanity that can sometimes upend people in their pursuit of dreams they have no business attempting. While I'm not one to squash someone's dreams, the sheer lunacy of singing in public when one simply cannot is a recipe for a disastrous end. And sadly, that's what happened: Jenkins, upon learning for the first time about her performance, suffered a heart attack two days later and died a month after that. It's a devastating ending to a story that seemed so prime for a feel-good moment; but FFJ too suffers from a serious shortfall that ultimately upends our appreciation and empathy for her.

Simply put, Florence Foster Jenkins fails because of Meryl Streep. I know that's hard to fathom, especially considering her amazing talent. But throughout the movie, one thing is clear: Streep is the star and therefore Frears has his camera centered on her. She's a force to be reckoned with, perhaps the best Hollywood has to offer. But that reputation forces creative teams to overly center their stories around her; and just like the disappointing rocker Ricki and The Flash, any (and all) potentially interesting side stories are brushed aside in favor of granting her center stage in nearly every shot. Her painful singing goes on for what feels like an eternity, and appears far too often. That forces nearly all the other stories to the side: we never learn if the high-voiced Cosme is gay (although lots of his mannerisms seem to spell it out), and Ferguson is so badly utilized that we never learn why St Clair has shacked up with her in the first place. I can't imagine it's due entirely to his sexless marriage, but it's clear that the creative team might not have a clue either.

Streep also seems like someone going through the motions of another overt Oscar run. Sure, her various quirks and lavish dress make her a perfect figure for her time, and Streep does get to the heart of Jenkins vis a vis tender looks or a regal reply that reminds you of her elevated station. But Streep is supporting a character who frankly I found myself pitying, not loving for her tenacity. Just because Kobe has money doesn't mean he should rap, and Jenkins is no different. That realization makes you feel uncomfortable, especially if you read of her demise after the harsh criticisms by The New York Post. That won't make you leave feeling good, nor will St Clair's marital infidelity. He's not the strong loving type until near the end when Ferguson's Kathleen dumps him. We can only support Cosme here, a young man thrust into an incredible situation that demanded every ounce of his patience. Heldberg does a fine job here, although my concerns about his backstory still hold him back from a Supporting Oscar nom. Grant's chances might not figure any better, because his role as philanderer is hard to get behind. Spend more time with that, and perhaps the real Grant comes to play.

There's also something problematic in crafting a story around a delusional character (see Suicide Squad). How can we fall in love with someone who isn't going to be a great (or even decent) signer, and who dies based on a sharp-tongued reviewer with no idea what she was trying to accomplish? Writer Nicholas Martin never gets to that point, choosing a more historically-accurate tale rather than breaking down the reasons behind it. Minus the approaching train wreck at Carnegie, there's no tension here; and without any chance of transforming herself, the story of Jenkins is almost a cautious one. The movie becomes a demand for our sympathy, forcing us to at once laugh at her incredible mediocrity and then feel bad for doing so when others begin to mock her. That's not an inspirational story to tell, although it's a historically accurate one. Credit the team for not finding a way to re-write this story for maximum Oscar effect.

Beyond that, the film is beautifully shot, and the CGI that re-creates New York is expertly handled. DP Danny Cohen - who shot The Danish Girl, Les Miserables, and Room - bathes every scene in warm colors and sharp accouterments. His stylized eye lends a heightened sense of reality to this story, and both he and Frears serve as mostly proficient tellers of this tragic comedy.

The marketing department behind Florence Foster Jenkins wants you to think this is some sort of comedic yuck-fest complete with Helberg's wide-eyed reactions somehow keeping this story afloat. But in a time when helicopter parents are (rightly) being scolded themselves for demanding everyone receive a medal for participation no matter the effort, Florence Foster Jenkins attempts to legitimize that argument by propping up this well-intentioned woman's tragic story for an obvious Oscar run. It's an effort that at once wants you to laugh at Jenkins, then scolds you for even thinking about it. That's not a winning formula, and perhaps a stronger indication of just how someone's idea of "inspirational" can actually seem relevant in our overly-negative time.

Florence Foster Jenkins is rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material and has a runtime of 110 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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