Meryl Streep doesn’t sing until about 25 minutes into Stephen Frears’ fact-based drama “Florence Foster Jenkins,” instead opting to spend most of the first act of the film playing up the eponymous character’s better traits, like a genial spirit and a true adoration for the arts, before taking her down a peg (or four) once she opens up her mouth to bellow out a melody. The joke of Jenkins’ life story is that, despite being a seemingly nice person who invested her entire being in advancing musical appreciation, she was an absolute dog of a singer, though that didn’t stop her from selling out shows — including an all-timer of a Carnegie Hall performance — and living her dream.
If “Florence Foster Jenkins” wasn’t so damn cheery and relentlessly good-hearted, it would serve as a fine cautionary tale for the dangers of extreme privilege and the tin-eared victims it leaves in its wake.
But Frears’ film really is that damn cheery and relentlessly good-hearted — and that spirit that may keep it from digging deeper into the drama of its material, but it also saves it from being a feature that’s just about people laughing at someone who happened to been born without a voice conducive to good singing. That’s where the film truly succeeds: Frears doesn’t treat Florence like a joke, and neither does Streep.
The film opens with Florence doing what she loved best: Putting on a show. As the founder of New York City’s The Verdi Club, the real-life Jenkins reveled in frequently showing off her (lack of) acting and musical ability to a rapt group of fans and friends, and that’s where she is at the start of Frears’ feature. Emceed by her own beloved husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a failed performer in his own right, Florence enters as the star of a charmingly lo-fi series of skits centered on lofty ideas like “inspiration” and “bravery.” Streep and the film toe a tricky line here — Florence is a wealthy, privileged woman who has used family money, not discernible talent, to get ahead in the rarefied world of New York City, circa 1944 — but she’s so kind-hearted and generous it’s nearly impossible to hate her.
It’s clear from the start that there’s something not quite right about Florence and the life she presents to the world, from the early reveal that St. Clair is actually living with another woman (Rebecca Ferguson, who does a lot with a little) to indications that she is physically ill. Jenkins’ life story is miles more heartbreaking than Frears lets on — although audiences will certainly get a taste of the kind of seemingly random tragedies that befell Jenkins — and as the film meanders towards its central narrative, the director continues to juggle a complicated tone with ease.
Florence, despite her ailments and personal troubles, is hellbent on returning to singing lessons to get in shape and perform for curated crowds, a practice she took up years ago before abandoning for undisclosed reasons. As St. Clair rallies the troops to make such a wish happen for his wife and patron, the full scope of the deception that shades Florence’s entire life soon reveals itself.
In simplest terms, everyone knows Florence is woefully unable to sing, but they encourage her pursuits because they love or they want something from her (in many cases, both apply). St. Clair hires the city’s best singing coach — who happily accepts envelopes full of cash and is always conveniently out of town when she’s about to perform — and sets out to find a new pianist to accompany her. It’s mainly through said pianist, Cosme McMoon (an utterly delightful Simon Helberg), that we enter and come to understand Florence’s world.
As Florence ratchets up her plans, St. Clair (and, eventually, Cosme) attempt to keep things in what could best be termed a safe space, only allowing cherished (and tight-lipped) guests to attend her personal recitals and paying off press to say kind things. Grant is at his charming best here — few actors could so adeptly juggle so much deception on the big screen without coming across like a first class creep — and St. Clair’s affection for Florence leaps off the screen, even when he’s shacked up with Ferguson’s much younger Kathleen. But keeping Florence in the dark scarcely allows her any room for anything approaching character growth, and while Streep is as appealing and focused as ever as Florence, Nicholas Martin’s script and Frears’ pacing give her precious little room to evolve Florence. If even Meryl Streep can’t make your character pop, you’re in trouble.
Although the film attempts to use Florence’s planned Carnegie Hall debut as its driving force, the film’s mostly lackadaisical pacing keeps it from moving forward with any great urgency, even as we know the event is pivotal in Florence’s life. Instead, Frears turns his focus on strange details, like Florence’s obsession with potato salad, and one-note characters, like Nina Arianda’s mostly baffling Agnes Stark (who mostly seems to exist to be absolutely awful to Florence before reversing course for no reason whatsoever). The most heart-pumping sequence involves Streep fishing a newspaper out of a garbage can on the street.
That Frears and company don’t use the film’s buzziest element — it’s about the world’s worst opera singer, and man, is she bad! — to poke fun at Florence is refreshing, but with material this wild and true, “Florence Foster Jenkins” should be hitting a lot more high notes.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” will be released on Friday, August 12.