Just as we enter the cinematic drought of August, Meryl Streep comes to the rescue with Florence Foster Jenkins, a crowd-pleasing and bittersweet comedy biopic that is proving a hit with critics. Directed by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen), the film is about a New York City socialite and philanthropist who cherished a dream to be an opera singer comparable to Lily Pons. The problem is simple: Florence cannot sing to save her life. Even so, she gives private concerts to her increasingly decrepit society friends, has Toscanini coming to her to beg for funds, and makes a recording that turns into a sleeper hit when it makes it onto the radio. Her ultimate goal is to play Carnegie Hall, where for the first time she faces music critics that have not been bribed into effusively kind reviews.
This makes it sound - and the promotional materials made it seem it would be - like a fairly typical inspirational movie about overcoming the odds and finding success. In fact, the movie wisely shies away from the expected narrative, bringing it to the point where it isn't entirely accurate to call it a comedy. Yes, Florence's screechings and wailings and groanings are hysterically funny, but the film complicates the way that we as an audience laugh at her. Florence is batty and oblivious, neurotic and blissfully un-self-aware, but she is also generous, sweet, loving, and genuinely eager to aid the suffering world in the only way she knows how: with music. The film is set in 1944, and while the war remains at the periphery of the story, it provides a catalyst for Florence, who longs to do something for the war effort. Streep doesn't hold back from being ridiculous, but Streep's Florence has a sincerity and a vulnerability that have a way of forcing us to feel actual pain at the hurt that our laughter causes her.
Streep is joined by Hugh Grant, as her husband, retired ham actor St. Clair Bayfield, and Simon Helberg, as her accompanist Cosmé McMoon (yes, that was his actual, honest-to-goodness name). Grant gives a subtle and ultimately moving performance, all the more so because he doesn't smooth out the rough edges of the character, his unscrupulousness and pomposity, his superficially well-meaning but ultimately self-serving secrecy. St. Clair and Florence have an unusual arrangement; they love each other, but live in separate apartments, while she pays the rent on both. St. Clair, however, is legitimately devoted to her, desperate to protect her from "the mockers and scoffers" and to ensure that she never find out how truly dreadful her singing is. Their affection for each other flouts every convention of the Hollywood definition of romantic love, yet makes for one of the most affecting and believable love relationships I've seen in recent films.
Cosmé, too, comes to care for his absurd employer. Helberg, best known for playing nerdy engineer Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory, is actually an amateur pianist and does his own playing, which is very welcome, as for once one needn't turn a blind eye to incompetent fakery, though the real Cosmé, judging from the recordings he made with Florence, was not a great pianist himself. Here too we have a character that eludes a stock type, not least of all because, as much as he comes to care for Florence, he remains mystified to the end by the incredible self-delusion that powers the Jenkins household.
For those who have not before experienced the glorious drollery of Jenkins's singing, the recording she made is available, and includes her renditions of the Queen of the Night's aria from The Magic Flute, the Bell Song from Lakmé, and a Bach arrangement that must have sent the eminent composer spinning round and round in his grave. One needn't know a thing about opera to appreciate the exquisite ludicrousness of her singing and it really does need to be heard to be believed. Streep does an excellent imitation, but she's still not quite as remarkably terrible.
There are several reasons that make Florence Foster Jenkins a strong contender for the best film of the year (so far, that is). For one, the movie is really, really funny, and in an unusually smart way. Opera singers will howl at the scene in which Florence is coached by Carlo Edwards (David Haig), exhorting her to find her voice "in the mask." There is a subtler undercurrent of wit, particularly musically speaking, that runs throughout the film. For another, here we have a rare protagonist indeed: a heavy middle-aged woman who has no talents and yet is so lovable that we root for her success, even as we know she didn't get it - she is famous today as the worst singer that ever lived. Finally, Florence Foster Jenkins insists that, even as we laugh, we remember that the people that we laugh at can be hurt, sometimes gravely. The film acquires emotional depth as we watch Florence donate a thousand tickets for her Carnegie Hall recital to the armed forces, who have become huge fans of hers because her ridiculous recording offers them some relief from their trauma and pain. They love her because she's terrible and knowing herself to be terrible is about as cruel a blow to Florence as there possibly could be. By the end of the movie, one has grown to care so much for this feathery wings and tiara-wearing heiress that comedy is left far behind. The line between laughing and tears blurs and disappears; Florence the singer never ceases to invite our ridicule, while Florence the person breaks our hearts.