Florence Foster Jenkins (three and a half of five stars)

The woman, but not much else, makes the movie.

Florence Foster Jenkins

3.5 out of 5 stars

Rated PG-13. Directed by Stephen Frears.

Starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.

Opens Aug. 12.

Let me just say this right off the bat: I would watch Meryl Streep read from the phone book (if, indeed, they are even published anymore). Of course, she has done some phone book reading through the years (Ricki and the Flash could perhaps be the most recent example), but over the course of a 40-year film career, she has soared. Watching Kramer vs. Kramer or Sophie’s Choice or any other number of films is to be immersed in a master class in acting. She's the closest thing we have to motion picture royalty.  

So any new Streep movie is, in its own way, a bit of an event, inevitably elevated by the actress at its center. Such is the case with Florence Foster Jenkins. A gentle, somewhat slight, tale of a quirky American entertainer (and I use that term loosely here), the film is helped immeasurably by the performance of its leading lady.

By any standards, Jenkins was both a minor — and indeed rather bizarre — footnote in the history of popular entertainment. A wealthy woman who performed her invitation-only concerts at salons and recital halls throughout the first half of the 20th century, she had a fairly rabid fan base even though she had persistent problems with tone and pitch (and couldn’t hold a note to save her life). Director Stephen Frears’ movie takes place in the final year of Jenkins’ life, when she steps outside her insular circle of friends and followers to perform for the first time at Carnegie Hall.

Streep, as might be expected, is the jewel in this particular crown. Considering she plays someone who is delusional, or at least genuinely naïve about her abilities (though at one point she observes that “People may say I can’t sing. But no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”), the triple Oscar winner (out of 19 nominations) nonetheless taps into infinite reservoirs of sympathy to show the vulnerability of someone who wants to be more talented than she is (her accompanist Cosme McMoon, played by Simon Helberg of Big Bang Theory fame, describes Jenkins' voice as defying medical science).

The same cannot be said of the film as whole. With a solid Streep providing an emotional core, it becomes confusing that it tries to have it both ways — the message seems to be to feel for someone with misguided dreams, and then her hideous singing is trotted out again and again as the best examples of comedy in Nicholas Martin’s script (though the humor weakness with each time we hear her, until by the end it simply becomes painful to watch).

Likewise, the motivations of Hugh Grant as Jenkins’ “husband,” St. Clair Bayfield, remains somewhat murky. Bayfield, who refers to their (common law) marriage as “a thing of the spirit,” finally does say how devoted he is to her and how important it is to keep “the mockers and scoffers at bay,” though one begins to question (despite Grant’s strong performance) the wisdom of such behavior, especially since he is living off her money and has a girlfriend on the side.

When all is said and done, however, Meryl Streep is front and center, and she is quite the force to be reckoned with. She is the actress of this era, and she brings a wonderful sensitivity and nuance to the role (there should be a drinking game — take a swig every time she tears up). She may be reading from Yellow Pages here, but she (unlike her protagonist) can make it sound mighty purty.

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