Jesus… look, I’m not the biggest Meryl Streep fan. I know she’s a heavy-weight actress, and everything, but this woman is just a little too desperate to prove her ability to sing. It was not very good in MAMMA MIA! (2008), not memorable in INTO THE WOODS (2014), and kind of uncomfortable in RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015). But, in a way, maybe that’s part of the humor of this movie. This is, after all, based on a real woman who couldn’t sing, yet was immortalized in her own unique way. And I have to admit, the trailer did make it seem rather enjoyable.
The cast. Streep, as I previously mentioned, is not my favorite actress. No, I don’t dislike her work, I’ve only seen so much of it, but I have yet to see the movie that made her “the greatest living actress of our time.” Who knows? Maybe I’ve only ever seen her worst work and that’s why I’m not as crazy about her. But we do have Hugh Grant, whom I was a huge fan of back in the day when he was the king of rom-coms. For those of you that don’t know, my mom practically raised me on them, and Grant frequented those viewings. So yeah, I love NOTTING HILL. Yeah, I love LOVE ACTUALLY. Yeah, I love ABOUT A BOY (2002). I think he’s incredibly funny and rom-coms haven’t been the same since he faded out of the lime-light over the past decade. I know the stories multiple stories: he’s a dad now, he’s difficult to work with, but who really knows the truth? Whatever. He’s back in a leading role and I’m ecstatic. Oh, and here’s a pleasant surprise: Simon Helberg. If you’re trying to pinpoint his face, he’s primarily famous for his role in the TV show BIG BANG THEORY. An even better pleasant surprise: Rebecca Ferguson. Probably one of the greatest and more popular women to come out of 2015, thanks to her popular break-out role in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION. I didn’t get a sense that she’s be a big player in the movie, but hey, whatever gets her on the big screen, right?
Sitting in the big chair for this picture is a veteran director Stephen Frears, who’s known for some critically acclaimed and generally popular films like PHILOMENA (2013), THE QUEEN (2006), and HIGH FIDELITY (2000). I’ve not seen any of them, they were well before I had gotten into my movie-watching craze, but I was confident this movie would be in good hands. Penning the screenplay for this story is Nicholas Martin. This will be feature-length debut as he his credits are all in television, but probably not for titles that the common man would have heard of. And adding one more crew to my list is the man behind the music, Alexandre Desplat. He’s created the music for such movies as SECRET LIFE OF PETS earlier this year, PHILOMENA, THE DANISH GIRL (2015), as the two Harry Potter: Deathly Hallows movies. To make things even more exciting for this guy, he’s slated to do the music for ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY later this year. Keep your ears open when that train rolls around, eh?
I was going in excited for certain talent and the movie did look like it’d be fine enough, but I was fully prepared to be annoyed with it. But enough with the yammering, this is my honest opinion of FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is a big lover of music. She owns her own music club, putting on shows for her upper class peers, but rarely displays her own singing voice. This is primarily because… she can’t sing very well. But this doesn’t stop her from roping in her devoted and loving husband, as well as actor, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), into resuming her singing lessons to be able to perform in front of an audience, to which he doesn’t hesitate to show his support of. Seeking a young and passionate pianist to accompany her on her ambitions, they find young Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), whom Florence takes an immediate liking to. Upon their first rehearsal together, Cosmé learns the hilariously terrible truth about Florence. As do many others upon their first performance, to which she is mocked behind her back. Assuming that she is loved by her audience and partners, Florence begins preparation for her next big show in Carnegie Hall, which has Cosmé on edge, being an aspiring musician and afraid that Florence will diminish his chances, as well as the tireless efforts of St. Clair to make sure that everyone continues to love Florence and her voice.
You know what? This movie exceed my expectations.
Alright, so let’s dive into the star herself, Streep. Yeah, she’s… fine. Before you pelt me with stones, hear me out. Did no one else get the impression that she was… acting? As in… obviously acting? Maybe I just didn’t buy her accent most of the time, or her mannerisms were almost satirical of a posh, upscale New Yorker. Despite all that though, I do see a woman who is in love with music. I do see a wonderful person who wants to be a good singer, and does work hard to achieving her goals. And you know what, there is something inspiring about a story about a woman who is labeled as the worst singer of all time, totally oblivious to her own voice, and yet performs for a crowd in one of the most celebrated venues for the performing arts, and Streep does very well in all of this.
In my opinion though, the absolute scene-stealer of the movie is Grant. By god, when this man is given something good, he makes it brilliant. It’s possible I’m just bias, having been raised on his rom-coms as a kid and the kind of characters he plays, but I thought St. Clair was the best character in the movie. He’s a fanatically loyal husband to Florence, despite having a romantic affair with Kathleen Weatherley (Rebecca Ferguson – criminally underused in this movie, by the way). He does everything in his power to make her happy and support her in her endeavors. I suppose you could argue that anyone that has an affair on their loved one is open for some choice words, but St. Clair does clearly love Florence. No man would go this far out of his way to do all these things for someone they didn’t genuinely feel for. It’s not even really that easy to dislike Kathleen. She understands St. Clair’s love for Florence and accepts that he needs her. She’s perfectly happy sharing her him despite the need for it to be a secret. Not that it’s always been easy for her, mind you, St. Clair forced her to hide in her own closet when Florence dropped by their home unannounced, but she’s not a bad person. Honestly, this might be one of Grant’s greatest acting performances of all time. He makes this movie for me.
Helberg is… serviceable. Again, similar to Streep, I feel like he was trying to be funny, and unless you’re doing stand-up, that’s not how you want to go about a movie like this. I have no idea what kind of research Helberg did for the role, if he found some recording, or book that described Cosmé’s voice as being quiet and high-pitched, but I think authenticity could be suspended for something a little more natural. And again, similar to Streep, my negatives probably hold very little water; Helberg is probably the most hilarious part of the movie. Cosmé’s reactions to Florence’s voice are utterly priceless. His eyes and the way they widen, the sheer willpower it takes for him to not burst out laughing, he’s amazing. But beyond that, I do see a guy who feels sort of trapped in the situation. Oh, not that St. Clair is using any form of manipulation to keep him around, but rather that he knows that by performing with Florence, one of the most respected and well-liked socialites of her time, as well as the opportunity to perform in front of her high class peers, it’s hard to turn away, even though he knows his chances of being anything great may have an equal chance of being complete diminished by performing with someone with no singing talent.
Again, I feel conflicted in a way. I’m not entirely sure what Frears was going for when he was directing his cast. Both Streep and Helberg seemed like they were trying too hard to be comical and Grant was the only one acting naturally. It’s like everyone else was told to act like what they were doing was a parody, but Grant played his role straight. And yet, for every scene featuring obvious acting, there’d be another scene around the corner that showcased real talent. One scene in particular that comes to mind is when Florence visits Cosmé at his home. He lives in an unkempt apartment and basically tells him that she’ll clean his dishes if he plays the piano for her. This scene is wonderful because I didn’t get the impression that either Streep or Helberg were trying to act. I saw two characters bonding, learning about each other, getting a deeper understanding of one another. But then I would remember that thirty minutes ago, there was a scene featuring Florence and Cosmé during a rehearsal and there’s a cheap-ass joke of trying to get Florence to hit a note that has her leaning again the back of a chair, and her vocal teacher Carlo Edwards (David Haig) is right behind her, wrapping his arms around to her stomach, obviously an innuendo for dry humping her. It’s moments like this that make me question how that scene got in there.
And speaking of off-putting scenes, one of my biggest issues was the ending. So there’s this young woman, Agnes Stark (Nina Arianda), obviously married to her older husband for the power and wealth, who gets privy to Florence’s bad voice early on in the story and basically spends the entire movie laughing at her, even mocking her. There’s even a scene where she’s listening to a record of Florence’s voice and joins a group of other assholes in making fun of her. And yet, just a few scenes later, Agnes is in the front row listening to Florence’s terrible singing. While a whole lot of other people are booing and laughing, Agnes… for whatever God-given reason, stands up and is all, “Shut up, assholes! This broad’s singing her heart out!” Um… you’ve been an asshole all movie long, you dumb bimbo! When the hell did you grow a conscience?! Maybe she bought one off screen.
Despite the many issues I had with the inconsistent acting from a couple of the core cast, when they get their scenes right, they get it right. And the story is very emotional and engaging despite it all, especially a powerhouse performance from Grant helped a lot. And I know that I probably ripped into this movie more than I really intended, I’m glad that I saw it and do recommend it if you’re a fan of the cast or Frear’s work. By no means perfect, it’s endearing enough to be worthwhile in my book.
My honest rating of FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS: 4/5
Upcoming hopeful review:
- HELL OR HIGH WATER
- trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23-f8TKVXvs