Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins
Laura Cavanaugh/ Noam Galai/ Getty Images
The catch-up continues with Meryl Streep’s latest Oscar vehicle, Florence Foster Jenkins. I want to sh*t on this movie for being too saccharine and unevenly balanced between its two leads, but this movie is explicitly about NOT sh*itting on people who are trying really hard, even if they fall short in the end. (Spoiler Alert: I’m going to sh*t on it anyway.) Meryl Streep stars as Florence Foster Jenkins, a real life eccentric who fancied herself a singer but who was a really, really, REALLY bad singer. (Proof.) Hugh Grant stars as her common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a failed actor who took over as Flo-Fo’s manager and protector as her health, and possibly sanity, waned in her later years.
The daughter of wealthy Philadelphians, and an actual piano prodigy, Florence Foster Jenkins contracted syphilis from her first husband, whom she promptly left upon discovering her infection. The marriage was never officially dissolved, though, so she shacked up illicitly with Bayfield, and made her living teaching piano—even though her hands were ruined, by accident or, more likely, syphilis—until her father died and she inherited a ton of money.
Because of her illness, she and Bayfield couldn’t consummate, and he kept a separate apartment where he met mistresses (represented in the film by Rebecca Ferguson). Jenkins was a real patron of the arts, but also insisted on being a star, and her money allowed her to make records and rent concert halls—including Carnegie—and lest you think ironic enjoyment of bad entertainment is new, it’s said Cole Porter used to attend her performances religiously and struggle not to laugh throughout.
There is an unflinching movie to be made about Jenkins, examining the connection between her privilege, sickness, and ill-conceived singing career—this is not that movie. As directed by Stephen Frears and written by British TV scribe Nicholas Martin, FFJ is more interested in chastising critics for chastising those who try and fail, and also in garnering Meryl Streep her twentieth Oscar nomination—which is practically inevitable. A decent campaign could probably get Hugh Grant a nod, too. And Best Picture, why not? This is such a weak f*cking year, and FFJ is exactly the kind of toothless period piece that benefits in such conditions.
To be fair though, there’s a lot of good stuff in FFJ. Streep is as fine as ever as Flo-Fo, singing with sh*tty gusto, and playing her as a lovably dotty older woman, whose politely ignored illness is really starting to ravage her system. Grant is also very good as Bayfield, a man comfortable with his keptness, and who has genuine affection for his oddball wife, even though his entire life revolves around protecting her from harsh reality. (Again, hard to ignore the insulating quality of wealth, especially when contrasted with the World War II reality outside their Belle Epoque apartment.)
It’s just that this movie wants to have it both ways. The performance scenes are staged for laughs, with Flo-Fo’s accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, showing a hell of a lot more ability than The Big Bang Theory ever utilizes), comically grimacing and mugging as she butchers aria after aria. The viewer is invited to enjoy the comedic spectacle of this kooky old bat singing horribly in public. But then the audience within the film—and the viewer outside it, by extension—is chastised for daring to laugh in the face of such earnest suckitude. It’s easy to see Flo-Fo as the spiritual godmother of all those hopeless American Idol auditions, but we’re not made to feel guilty for laughing at those. We are made to feel bad about laughing at Flo-Fo, even after the film has set us up to laugh.
The whole movie feels like a trick question. I don’t really know what the moral of the story is, because Flo-Fo’s dream is only made possible through her extravagant wealth and excessive coddling. It’s supposed to be inspirational, I suppose, but again, what part of “you can do anything if you’re rich enough” is meant to inspire? More than anything, Florence Foster Jenkins feels like Baby Boomer version of “everybody gets a participation trophy”.