Florence Foster Jenkins

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Director Stephen Frears did two films I loved — High Fidelity (John Cusack, Jack Black) and Philomena (Judi Dench, Steve Coogan). He did The Queen (which was a tad overrated).

Fears brought Streep, who has been praised for her singing in a few movies, including last year’s awful Ricki and the Flash. She’s asked to sing horribly in this. Did she pull it off? Come on! This is Meryl frigging Streep. Of course she did.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a wealthy New York socialite and patron of the arts. She has funded an opera club, which affords her the opportunity to put herself on stage, as well as her husband (Hugh Grant). He’s a failed British actor.

Frears did an awful job with this movie. The tone is all wrong (pun intended). It has one gag that gets old quick, and if you really dissect it, doesn’t make sense. You see, the audience is asked to laugh at Jenkins’ horrible singing. Yet later in the movie, we’re supposed to have sympathy when her audiences laugh and heckle her. And ya know how annoyed we all got with laugh tracks on bad sitcoms in the ‘70s? Well, this movie had a built in one with the audiences laughing at each wrong note.

My girlfriend and I were both really confused by the movie, too. Her husband (the always splendid Hugh Grant) was certainly very loving, yet he had a mistress he would go to most nights. We were perplexed at why he had this devotion to Jenkins, and why he wouldn’t pull her aside and just not let her continue with her singing endeavors. And nobody ever explained her nuttiness. Was her self-delusion part of her medical condition and syphillis?

In The King’s Speech, we could laugh as Colin Firth struggled with his stuttering, because we weren’t laughing when he stuttered. We rooted for him to get passed it. It was the other scenarios (like his string of curse words), when he failed at his attempt to give a speech stutter-free.

In This is Spinal Tap, we could laugh at the mistakes a bad heavy metal band makes. In this movie, Frears feels repetitive scenes of bad singing should make us chuckle. Why? It was mildly amusing the first time, but got old quickly. The worst was pianist Cosme McMoon (played by The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg). It was cute the way his eyes bulged the first time he heard her sing. Yet when he’s constantly trying to stifle his laughter, and makes squeaking sounds, with eyes rolling — it was irritating for the audience, not humorous. It all got so tiresome.

One of the other things that confused us was the character played by Agnes Stark. She’s a stereotypical character — a brash Italian-American princess type. In an early scene she falls on the floor laughing when she hears Jenkins sing. Yet later in the movie, at the big Carnegie Hall performance, she berates the audience for laughing. It’s the same attitude the director and writer of this film want from us — to laugh sometimes, and feel bad for her at others. It doesn’t work that way. She reminded me of Edith Bunker from All in the Family — both in looks and intelligence. Yet what made Edith Bunker so much fun is the fact that when Archie would say something racist or ignorant, she’d be able to put him in his place with her sweetness and naivety. In this, we just watch Jenkins run around like a chicken with her head cut off. And her husband does the same thing trying to keep the humiliation to a minimum. That means paying off music critics, or buying up all the newspapers on the block so she can’t read the bad reviews.

The movie does get a little credit for evocatively capturing 1940s New York, and interesting costume design. That’s about it.

The 3rd act becomes maudlin garbage, and the two hours in a theatre never seemed to go by slower. At one point I fell asleep (I’m guessing my snores accompanied the bad signing perfectly).

I thought about two other movies, as examples of why this film didn’t work.

The sports film Rudy, although not one of my favorites, can suck us all in. It’s a guy that loves the Notre Dame football team, he’s small, and has pipe dreams of someday playing for them. Because of hard work and perseverance, he makes that happen. How can you not root for him and adore watching him accomplish that? Yet watching a rich socialite, who wants to do things she’s not good at…and is able to because she has money…well, who cares?

When I was going with a friend to see the Andy Kaufman movie Man on the Moon, he asked, “Why would a talented director like Milos Forman [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ragtime, Amadeus] bother making a movie about a comedic actor?”

I didn’t ask him if it bothered him that Forman tackled smut peddler Larry Flynt just a few years earlier. I responded with, “I think most people could have an interesting movie made on their lives, if you took all the entertaining moments to show, and did it right.”

Florence Foster Jenkins certainly fits that bill. She was a child prodigy on piano, eventually performing at the White House for President Hayes. Her father didn’t want to pay for her musical lessons, so she married, moved out of state, and caught syphillis from him. She dropped the husband, kept the name, and lived in near poverty as she gave piano lessons for money. When her parents died, she inherited a fortune. None of that is shown in movie.

Frears should’ve given us that story. Instead, we have a 19 time Oscar nominee on stage singing badly. We’re just supposed to fall in love with the movie because of that (and I’m guessing most critics will).

This gets 1 star out of 5.

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