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Saturday
Aug132016

Review: Meryl Streep as "Florence Foster Jenkins"

This review was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad

It takes a gifted singer to sing this horribly. Every other note is wrong. No phrasing goes unmangled by shortness of breath. No lovely moment meant to soar cannot be shattered by a flat ear-piercing decibel. The central conceit of Stephen Frears new comedy Florence Foster Jenkins is that Florence, a considerably wealthy patron of the arts played by Meryl Streep, lives for music but is ghastly at it. The inside joke, given the casting, is that we all know La Streep can sing with the best of them. She followed the "is there nothing she can't do?" revelation of Ironweed's tragic showstopper "He's Me Pal" (1987, Oscar-Nominated) with transcendent country crooner feeling in Postcards From the Edge (1990, Oscar-Nominated), and just kept on singing whenever a movie gave her the opportunity all the way up through last year's Ricki and the Flash which was practically a concert film there were so many scenes of Streep at the mic, rocking out.

Florence Foster Jenkins doesn't rock out. Florence is not that kind of girl and Florence, also, is not the kind of movie...

 

The old woman is content to host parties (potato salad is a must!) and go to bed early with a chaste tucking in from her charming husband St Claire Bayfield (Hugh Grant, the best he's been in ages) who is the rock star behind the scenes. He does all the heavy showmanship lifting to keep Florence dreamy and happy, rather than sad and sickly; for St. Claire and even for Florence, the movie argues, her ignorance is their bliss.

If only our ignorance was also bliss. The movie is right there with St Claire in assuming that everyone will be happier with fantasy than reality. But can't we have equal portions of both? Florence Foster Jenkins is based on a true story but it's tough to say which parts are fiction unless your expertise is eccentric American socialites of WWII era Manhattan. Much of the movie plays like it couldn't possible be true but here we are.

The movie's ignorance is bliss mantra extends even to the main storyline. Florence's dream is to perform at Carnegie Hall and we're given little information as to how she moves from a high society figure to a divisive populist sensation that can sell that venue out. Frankly, the occassional peaks at harder truths like the couple's sexless open marriage and Florence's subtle manipulations (especially with her money) are so compelling that it's easy to wish the film wasn't quite so docile and satisfied within the confort of the broadly comic.

 

Not that there's anything wrong with fanciful comedy. You know that Streep and Grant excel at it, and they're well supported by a lively turn from stage goddess Nina Arianda (Venus in Fur Tony winner) as the tactless new wife of one of their richest friends. She can't believe her ears when she first hears Florence sing. Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory) is less successful as Florence's chosen accompanist who is essentially the third lead. He's gifted with so many closeups that you need more from the performance than awkward nervousness. That's particularly problematic when the movie throws in a very gay party but his own sexuality remains opaque or perhaps non-existent.

All told this is a rather old fashioned trifle of a star vehicle and what depth it does have comes from what can be inferred in performance rather than what the movie delivers. That's as we've come to expect from the director Stephen Frears. Though his breakthrough came with the rather daring and sociopolitically savvy My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), he's mostly abandoned the former bite of his early work.  Florence is another in his recent line of more comforting star vehicles for Great Actresses surrounded in fussy manners or plum period finery (or both): Judi Dench in Mrs Henderson Presents and Philomena, Michelle Pfeiffer in Chéri and Helen Mirren in The Queen. The new film is a handsome production, too, and one that could easily be mistaken for a glossy "For Your Consideration..." ad in Variety.

Perhaps it doesn't add up to much but it's lovely to look at and touching. That the one joke conceit doesn't wear out its welcome is often thanks to Streep's pitch-perfect off-pitch singing. She somehow makes that funny every single time but we shouldn't be surprised that when the role calls for "blue" Meryl will bring "cerulean." And it's not just Meryl. The movie as a whole balances well on a very thin wire between its potentially mean-spirited premise and real affection for delusional dreamers. Nicholas Martin's screenplay and Stephen Frears direction actually go so far as to lionize delusions as life-saving coping mechanisms. Which... well, I'm not a psychotherapist so no judgments, but I am a movie fan and Florence Foster Jenkins is a good time.


Grade: B (maybe a B+ if it holds up on second viewing)
MVP: Hugh Grant
Oscar Chances: Most definitely. It's bound to get some attention at the Golden Globes which will help revive its profile during voting and its themes could well resonate with the filmmaking community given its love for and joking about the arts, the sadness about possible careers shuttered, and even delusions of grandeur, haha. I'd say it could win traction in this order of likelihood: Costume (Highly Probable), Score & Actress (Never safe to assume Meryl and Desplat won't find their way in), Production Design (Possible), and if they really love it even Actor or Supporting Actor (Hugh Grant is totally a lead -- has more screen time than Streep and it's about both of them but I fear they'll campaign him in supporting. He's wonderful in the movie but he is in no way shape or form a supporting player). 

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Reader Comments (23)

Streep is reliably fantastic and Grant has never, ever been better, but the film meanders too much! The entire subplot about Sinclair's "double life" should have been axed. I'm also not sure that I've seen a worse performance this year than Simon Helberg's...

August 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

I enjoyed it. I laughed a lot, which is more than I can say for a lot of comedies these days. Grant is definitely MVP, but I did enjoy Arianda, but also David Mills in a small part as the best gay friend of Arianda. He does so much more with his face than the guy from Big Bang Theory.

August 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

La Streep La Streep La Streep ....oscar for La Streep this year

August 13, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterarturo

$6.1 million projection for 1,500 screens. I saw some seniors at the multiplex theatre on a Saturday night and thought, wow. People loved Florence, so Streep can be her perfectly. Plays funny and sentimental, with great performances.

August 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRona Barrett

I am a die- hard Streep fan, and I found her usual excellence in this movie... however, unless the Best Actress list is quite short this year, I don't see a nom... Golden Globe ( probably ) ... I loved the movie ( with all its flaws ), because I was taken to a whole other time in our cinematic history.
Streep has shown such a slew of women roles from The Deer Hunter to FFJ.. No one in cinematic history has been able to do what she does.. a chameleon for sure...

I know there was Bette Davis ( whom I totally think was great) but comedy, singing,etc. ? not really..

Then the comparison to Katharine Hepburn who won 4 BA awards...

I have never seen Morning Glory... she totally deserved the Oscar for The Lion in Winter

But both Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and On Golden Pond showed only that she could tear up on cue and quiver her lips... and also her two leading men ( Tracy and Fonda ) were both dying during the filming ... adds to the drama

So Streep deserves her "place in the sun" ... and she may or may not ever get the 4th Oscar... from what i have read lately... I have a feeling she is going to do fewer and fewer movies and concentrate on other aspects of her life ( IMO )

August 14, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Well, she'll certainly get a Globe nod. Especially if this is a hit. People seem a lot more excited than they were for Ricki and the Flash. I think moderate Streep fans want her movies to have nice costumes, hairstyles, and set designs like In Florence.
If the movie doesn't make $50 million domestically, I think Oscar will forget about this. Julie and Julia's 94 million domestic take ensured voters would remember it the following winter.

August 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJes

I saw this a while ago (came out much earlier in the UK). I found it charming and with a good balance of comedy/poignancy. While Streep was as good as one would expect I don't think it's nomination worthy (considering the year looks promising in the Best Actress category). I liked her a lot more in Ricki and the Flash... probably because that character was a lot more layered. I did think Grant was really good and the movie plays an interesting tone to his charming persona. Nina Arianda was hilarious and an inspired casting choice (apparently Frears developed the character for her). Simon Helberg not so much... too mannered and affected, which would be fine if that was their take on the character, but sadly that's pretty much all they bother developing him.

August 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

I really enjoyed it although I knew what to expect,Grant was great but he has been underutlized for years while people like Law,McGregor,Cumberbatch (did they really nominate him for Best Actor) Redmayne (Did they relaly let him win an Oscar first time out) and Hiddleston sucked up all the air in the room and not 1 of them has charm like Grant.

August 14, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermark

Tyler -- ooh i dont agree at all. I thought the other life of St. Claire was what principally gave the marriage depth and helped you to understand the heavy lifting of their relationship. He's working hard to create her dream life but most of it is fantasy.

Rick -- well, to be fair, Hepburn won for mostly the wrong performances whereas, Iron Lady aside, Streep won for the right ones.

Carlos -- yaaas on Nina. So much casting is uninspired these days like they're just picking names from the same very very short list of everyone else (seriously some people are in EVERYTHING and there are so many good character actors out there)

August 14, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I think Meryl won her third for the right role. (not performance, but overall it's still very solid Oscar-y)
Maybe she wins a fourth in Supporting at #20. That would be a great symmetry, no?

August 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Hmm. America's most acclaimed actress in role that nor only uses her strong technical facility but is basically an ode to performing itself. Yeah I am pencilling her in.

August 14, 2016 | Unregistered Commentern-a

I feel a 20th nomination happening this year-especially with the reviews Streep has been getting- some are saying it is her best work in a while ( which is saying a lot)

August 14, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjamie

I can't help but feel like people's opinions on Streep's nomination chances are being swayed by their wanting her to stay out of Viola's way... If somehow it's down to the two of them again after this season shakes out, I don't think the academy can deny Viola again.

But Ruth Negga could make this all a moot point, and the pair of friends will end up also-rans...

Streep is my favorite actress, but I'm able to be objective enough to see her like cynics do...

Oscar Chances:
Name Recognition (/Reputation/Prior Work/Sophie): 50%
Performance Difficulty (Accent/Physical Transformation/Learned a Skill): 20%
Well-reviewed Film: 20%
Campaigning: 10%

August 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRene

Only 20 percent for performance? Ha. Pathetic and Paramount want to give this an awards push in multiple acting and production categories.

A race with Davis, Negga, and Streep would be monumental.

August 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMarie

PS, meant Pathe not Pathetic. Pathe has done a great job.

August 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMarie

I thought you were throwing some shade Pathe's way there, Marie lol

August 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

That's interesting. The first review I read on Letterboxd was about how the script robs Florence's perspective away. It's nice to see people seeing Meryl push for Florence's agency. And this is why I should read reviews BEFORE watching movies because I'll know what to look for.

This movie reminds me just as much of the one where Claire Danes plays a bad actress or what Claire says about taking that role in that learning to be bad is hard.

Now that I got the smart part of my comment out of the way, I am also surprised to see Meryl gigs while Nina Arianda is easily the giffable one in the film and there aren't any of hers yet.

August 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

A nomination for Streep can very well happen, especially since she's been publicizing this movie more heavily than usual. She's been everywhere--doing podcasts, multiple morning shows, TimesTalks, Charlie Rose, CBS Sunday Morning etc. Once the Golden Globe nomination happens, she will probably do another cycle of publicity.

August 15, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdela

@ Rene

I think with Meryl that Name Recognition is only 33.3%. Performance Difficulty (& Quality) is another 33.3%, and the final third is split about evenly between campaigning and reviews.

(Not the most scientific calculation, but hey.)

August 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

@ Paul

I was playing the cynic with those percentages. Some people dread when her name comes up and is attached to any seemingly substantial movie. They think she's half way to a nomination with every performance just because she's Meryl Streep.

August 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRene

I think Florence will also be her 30th Golden Globe nomination!

August 15, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjamie

Jamie -- easily, yes. The Globes love her even more than Oscar does.

August 15, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I don't understand how Simon Helberg got such great review on other sites. I think his performance was one of the worst this year, next to Streep the flaws were much more obvious. The scene where she shows up at his house is a showcase for her range and he just sinks.

February 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterT

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