Sunday, October 16, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Alternate Title:  First World Problems
One sentence synopsis:   A wealthy philanthropist with no skill at singing attempts to fulfill a lifelong dream of singing at Carnegie Hall.

Things Havoc liked: I'm on record as being willing to see anything that Meryl Streep does. I've done so on more than one occasion for this project, including quite a few films (Into the Woods) that I would not otherwise have given the time of day to. Still, one must be consistent in one's cinematic dealings, even if those dealings lead us down paths terrifying to tread. Paths like ones that lead to Hugh Grant.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I haven't seen hair nor hide of Hugh Grant, once the crown prince of awkward befuddlement (Grant was once so ubiquitously milquetoast that there are still rumors he allowed himself to be arrested for soliciting prostitutes just so that he could credibly get an "edge" to his image), since his turn as about fifteen different things in the extremely strange (and extremely good) film Cloud Atlas. And before that? Nothing since Love Actually, all the way back in 2003. So given my blessed interval away from Hugh Grant, why am I talking about him and not about the Greatest Actor in the World? Because Hugh Grant is awesome in the movie and you all need to hear about it.

Grant plays St. Clair Bayfield, the most British man alive, a swinger of the 1940s with little money but a great deal of old English charm, married to the wealthy widower Florence Foster Jenkins and secret lover to what appears to be a number of swinging, hip women reveling in the freedom of the war years. There was a time when the prospect of Hugh Grant playing a character like this would have driven me screaming out of the theater, but there's no denying that an older, more mature, and more experienced Grant is goddamn perfect in this role, using his trademark understated humor to tremendous effect, and more than willing to inject ridiculous slapstick into the proceedings if he thinks it will get a laugh. Lest Grant's character sound like a playboy (which he is) and nothing else, the movie goes to enormous length to show just how devoted Bayfield is to Jenkins, whom he dotes upon to the point of lunacy, constantly keeping dozens of schemes spinning to avoid upsetting her in any way, and encouraging her whims and fancies of artistry, no matter how ridiculous they may seem. The film, and Grant himself, make it very clear that these are not just the actions of a kept man trying to keep his lifestyle going, but a besotted worshiper, who refuses to see anything but joyful foibles in his beloved's flaws, and indulges her delusions of adequacy when it comes to her singing career.

And they are indeed delusions, of the highest degree, for while Streep doesn't steal the show in this film the way she typically might, she does manage to play a dotty old woman whose belief in her own skill hovers between the narcissistic (though utterly without malice), and the simply demented. Meryl Streep can sing, very well in fact. She's proven that in everything from Mamma Mia to Death Becomes Her to Prairie Home Companion to a dozen other films. It consequently must be difficult for her to sing so badly, for so long, with such consistent lack of talent, grace, or self-awareness, as she contrives to as the titular Florence Foster Jenkins. It's not merely that she's terrible, but that she contrives to maintain no awareness whatsoever of her terribleness, not even as audiences laugh at her and critics boil over in rage, both because of her own delusions and the helping hand of her husband, who whisks away any bad news into a form more palatable to his beloved. One is reminded of Good Bye, Lenin!, the 2003 Wolfgang Becker film about a son desperate trying to conceal the fall of the Berlin wall from his Communist mother, particularly in sequences wherein Grant has to explain away the aftermath of a debauched party, or scramble to hide mocking reviews from his wife, who may not survive the shock.

Things Havoc disliked: Would that the rest of the cast were as good as Hugh Grant (there's a statement I thought I'd never make), or Meryl Streep, but they are not, and Florence Foster Jenkins loses a lot of its magic as a result. Simon Helberg, of The Big Bang Theory and little else, plays pianist Cosmé McMoon, hired to accompany Florence in her performances, and is simply not up to acting alongside either of his co-stars. Though his character is supposed to be something of a blank cypher, whose role is to bear witness to the madness that surrounds him, Helberg isn't even up to that much, and plays the character like a low-functioning idiot grinning his way through the movie in the hopes that it will end and he can go back to television. I got visions of Mark Wahlberg's performance in The Happening from him, and brother, that is not something you want to hear me say. The rest of the cast is forgettable, but particular honors must go to stage actress Nina Arianda, who brings a stage-size mentality to her role, which is to say that she overacts like a lunatic, with big, sweeping, melodramatic gestures that are totally at odds with the restrained farce that the rest of the film seems to inhabit. All of this means that the movie plays very broad with subject matter that isn't really up to the task of that, as though somebody dropped the Marx Brothers into the Bob Newhart show.

Now how about that for a reference that nobody will get?

Final thoughts:   Florence Foster Jenkins is an all right movie, not a great one, but a decent film worth considering if you're hard up for something to see, and given this year, who isn't? Meryl is incapable of delivering a bad performance, as usual, and Hugh Grant re-inventing himself as a character with refined comic timing is a very welcome addition to the small ranks of actors who can do that. The subsidiary performances are bad enough to drag the movie back down to earth, but then again, I hardly expected this movie, of all movies, to become some kind of classic masterpiece for the ages. Sometimes you just want something worth seeing, especially when there's so little out there that fits the term.

Final Score:  6/10

Next Time:  *Sigh*  Time to play catchup again...

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