Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill
|Featuring:|| Meryl Streep … Florence Foster Jenkins
Hugh Grant … St Clair Bayfield
Rebecca Ferguson … Kathleen
Simon Helberg … Cosme McMoon
Neve Gachev … Friend of Florence
Nina Arianda … Agnes Stark
John Kavanagh … Arturo Toscanini
Josh O'Connor … Donaghy
David Haig … Carlo Edwards
Mark Arnold … Cole Porter
|Director:||Stephen Frears—“High Fidelity” (2000), “The Queen” (2006), “Philomena” (2013)|
Pathé Pictures International
No one remembers who originated the old joke:
“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Practice, practice, practice.”
Despite its author having been forgotten, the joke remains a steadfast part of classical music humor. As with any good quip, there is some truth at the center of its contradiction. Denying its truth can lead to tragedy, or even worse, to social embarrassment, as it did in the case of 1940s New York socialite, Florence Foster Jenkins.
Mrs. Jenkins sometimes practiced (“I study an hour, sometimes two…”), but her lack of preparedness never stopped her from stepping into the arena and giving it her all. Unfortunately for her, and for her audience, that all was not so much.
Mrs. Jenkins was able to stage her own “concert” at Carnegie Hall in 1944, not through talent and hard work, but by applying her financial resources, using her connections, and consolidating her enablers to pull off an event that is still a part of Carnegie Hall and New York City lore. Her singing was a mish-mash of missed notes, flat tones and other assorted unidentifiable sounds whose timbre could rupture a hound’s eardrum. Some of her recordings can still be heard on YouTube, but for the curious, I would recommend keeping the volume low, and the stop button at the ready.
Yet, despite her handicaps, Florence’s Carnegie evening was a sell-out. No doubt the draw was its rumored campiness, a kind of “so bad, it’s good” promise for sophisticates in search of the latest titillating side show. Her audience, which included Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead, showed up not to be enriched, but to be amused. They came for a good laugh, at Florence’s expense. And it was not just her reputation that cost her. Florence, herself, shelled out the admission price for most of her attendees.
Stephen Frears would seem well suited to direct “Florence Foster Jenkins.” He specializes in sympathetically portraying the lives of misunderstood people (“Philomena,” “The Queen”), but his new film is as cacophonous as its subject. He fails to bring together the many facets of his complex heroine: her good taste in classical music that directly contradicts a cluelessness about her own lack of talent, her quest for sophistication and aristocratic affirmation that hardly explains her keeping the company of mawkish spouses, friends, and musicians, and especially the occasional but grounded realism that is drowned out by her head-in-the-clouds belief that she has a voice that could be the envy of Lily Pons.
Frear’s film is too episodic and too chaotic to render the kind of allegory one might expect from such a “true-life” story. The story is an endless series of interludes that never lead to an aria. When Florence says: “Music has been and is my life,” one is moved by her passion, but waits for her to follow up by stating or doing something truly crazy. Feeling herself duty-bound, she hands over money to musicians whose contempt for her obviously dwarfs her respect for them, but that nobility is soon fractured by a break in reality that allows her to believe she is on par with those musicians. And even worse, to act on that disordered belief.
There is a sadness that comes from the fact that Florence can obviously connect to an audience, even if singing is not her vehicle. Before Carnegie Hall, she stages a number of recitals and makes a few recordings that do have appeal to some groups: U.S. Servicemen, mostly sailors; a cultural club called the “Verdi Society” consisting of elderly women most of whom are hearing impaired; and assorted New York socialites, some on the way up looking for invites to Park Avenue salons and some on the way down looking for handouts.
Florence’s second husband, St. Clair Bayfield, is devoted to her in ways that are both touching and stomach turning. He helps to stage and promote her appearances, the brass tacks of which consist of bribing newspaper critics, withholding admission to a growing numbers of attendees who are merely “mockers and scoffers,” and hiding any bad reviews that do make it to print. When not tending to his wife’s considerable needs, he retreats to a mistress who lives in Brooklyn. It is in these scenes that Frears’ film truly goes off the rails. What the purpose of this story line might be is anybody’s guess, but it flies in the face of Sinclair’s constant doting on a wife he obviously loves, and his hammy assertion: “Without loyalty, there is nothing.”
Bayfield is played by Hugh Grant who is always adept at making the liar, the cheat, or the cad a rather fine chap who deserves a pat on the back, although you might want to watch your own back when he is around. Grant’s performances have become clichés, as of late, but he does muster up a decent characterization here.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Meryl Streep, who seems to be all over the lot as Florence. She does play Mrs. Jenkins with occasional aplomb and verve, but she mostly does what has become trademark Streep: maintaining an imperious demeanor and accent while evoking pathos by gesture and sigh, rarely with delicacy, and never with silence. After recording a song in the studio and almost making the voice meter crack, she is asked if she would like to do another take. “I don’t see why,” she replies, “that one seemed perfect to me.” How right that scene would have been if Streep just said the line and left it at that. When a quiet stillness is all that is needed to reveal her character’s true nature, Streep grabs at her suit-top and her fur collar as she spins her head, as if to imply that she may be unsure of her talent after all, or perhaps in on the joke. When the script cries out for less, Streep persistently strives to add more.
Simon Helberg plays Miss Jenkins’ pianist, Cosme McMoon. Helberg’s performance is a series of gasps, gulps and stifled giggles. Whereas Streep is overbearing—even her costumes offend—Helberg is simply insipid. The film hints that there is more to McMoon than meets the eye or the ear, but the suggestions are left dangling, and so is Mr. Helberg, whose grin and shuffle indicate that he has a comic energy that, if let out of the bottle, could light a spark.
There are a few standouts in the supporting cast. Christian McKay is perfect as New York Post critic, Earl Wilson, who refuses to be paid off by St. Clair and whose review proves a turning point in the career and the myth of Florence Foster Jenkins. David Haig is beguiling as the flattering maestro Carlo Edwards who pretends to teach Florence how to sing. Best of all is Nina Arianda in a small part as a social upstart who sees the comedy not just in Florence’s voice, but in the make-believe world around her. Arianda’s Agnes Stark is the child who tells the truth about what lies behind an empress’ clothes, as well as what lies within the hearts of those who came to laugh, especially those who came to throw the stones.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” could have been a searing moral tale about what happens to a society that denies truth and makes a mockery of virtue. When a world is unsure of what makes the sacred and the profane different, one’s concept of beauty is tarnished, and one’s sense of humor becomes no sense at all. That old joke tells us that the road to Carnegie Hall is a narrow one, and only a few will make it. That is true of most roads, especially the one road that truly matters.
Violence: Minor / Profanity: Moderate—OMG (3), “Oh g*d” (2), “g*d d*mn” (1), “for g*d’s sakes” (1), “Oh for G*d’s sakes” (1), “g*d darn” (1), “good g*d” (1), “oh good L*rd” (1),“ My G*d” (1), “h*ll” (1), SOB (1), a** (3), a**hole (1), s-words (2) / Sex/Nudity: Minor to moderate—innuenudos, kisses, cleavage, sexual talk, adultery, man on top of woman on beach kissing, man and woman in bed together
See review of: “Marguerite” (2015)—a better made film based very loosely on Florence Foster Jenkins
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.