‘Florence Foster Jenkins’
Stephen Frears
Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant
Rating: PG-13
4 (out of 5) Globes

The title of one Florence Foster Jenkins compilation album is “The Glory (????) of the Human Voice.” That’s not very nice. Perhaps deservedly so. One of the worst singers to ever foolishly commit her voice to record, she was a society lady who, in the 1940s, had enough money to convince herself, and a bevy of yes-men and deaf dowagers, that she didn’t sing with the accuracy of a drunk, sweaty octopus trying to defuse a bomb. She even played Carnegie, thinking she was murdering Mozart and Verdi when she was actually murdering them. She died largely unaware she was an instant camp classic, nor that her recordings are good ways to clear out parties that have raged too long.

The movie made of her life, starring no less than Meryl Streep, is much nicer. It walks a fine line between deep mockery and genuine empathy. It knows that Jenkins’ pitchless, rhythmless warble produced laughter the way bullets produce blood. But it also knows that doing nothing but snickering at her is wrong. So it plays it both ways, inviting you to laugh at her sprawling chasm of talent while understanding that an epic lack of self-awareness is the only thing keeping her from being tragic.

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We don’t hear Streep’s Jenkins disembowel an aria till the film is almost a half-hour old, but it’s time enough to figure her out. Living off an inheritance she seems to sincerely think is too small, she’s a woman of fine, expensive taste whose parties happen to include enough potato salad to fill a tub. The movie trails her as she goes from a mere patron of the arts to a wholly undeserving artist herself. Her accomplices include a younger husband, the failed actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who’s spent 25 years clearly fending off poverty. And there’s her accompanist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), a pianist with a nasty case of nervous giggling. He’s afraid to tarnish his reputation, but not enough to turn down paychecks as big as his client’s musical talents were low.

Bayfield and McMoon are predators feasting on an upper-class twit. But they’re sympathetic, too. That’s not a contradiction. The film understands people who struggle to contain big, rickety worlds held together by scotch tape and bubblegum (and lots of money). Everything about and in the film is a tightrope act. Streep throws herself into the role of a talentless idiot, but she gives Jenkins a girlishness that’s endearing, even when she’s doing what looks like a dire interpretive dance in front of a house stocked with snickering drunks, trying not to let their laughs overpower her singing.

The movie, though, is owned by Grant. As Bayfield, he’s in enjoyably smirking jerk mode: dressing down flummoxed naysayers with precision; charming critics as he bribes them for fawning write-ups; deviously filling her shows with “music lovers” (aka, shnooks grabbed off the street). Unlike Jenkins, though, he has the curse of self-awareness. He knows the jig is up when her time is, too, and you can see strains of panic in his every dastardly move, hear it in every razor-sharp one-liner. Frears directs this as a light comedy, and a good third of the images are groaning close-ups of people in various states of shock at what they’re hearing. But if it plays as lampoon of a triumph-of-the-human-spirit picture, it’s also a sad lament for life’s losers, who are probably closer to us than most of the winners. 

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