By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
During the 1940s, an American socialite and wealthy patron of the arts named Florence Foster Jenkins became famous for her opera recordings. Jenkins developed a bit of a cult following among the troops fighting overseas in World War II. At the age of 76, Jenkins sold out Carnegie Hall with many of the seats reserved for her biggest fans–military servicemen . One would think all of this fame, fortune, and admiration was bestowed upon a singer of tremendous talent. However, this couldn’t be any further from the awesomely strange truth. The fact is, and it doesn’t take a musician to acknowledge this, that Florence Foster Jenkins was, perhaps, the worst opera singer ever to achieve fame.
Writer Nicholas Martin and director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) have made a wonderful and delightful film in Florence Foster Jenkins, a movie that details the latter years of Jenkins’ life and the curious chain of events which led to her celebrity as a “singer.” Meryl Streep stars as the titular character whose love for the arts and opera inspires her to pursue singing. Hugh Grant co-stars as St. Clair Bayfield, Jenkins’ loving husband who never has to heart to dissuade his wife from her passion to perform. In fact, Bayfield encourages her and helps her in her endeavor by hiring plenty of yes-people including singing teachers, critics, and anyone who, for the right price, would make her feel like a superstar. Bayfield also hires pianist Cosme’ McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany her singing during her lessons, rehearsals, recordings, and even live performances. The combination of protective reinforcement by her husband and helpers and her popularity as a novelty act leads to Florence Foster Jenkins’ fame as a cult artist.
I truly do hope that this excellent movie reaches such a large audience and earns a wealth of fans because it truly deserves an adoration greater than that of a cult classic. Though the story is a bit odd, it really isn’t all that bizarre given the nature of people and our attraction to the unusual, whether it is for the sake of mockery or not. The popularity of reality television, Youtube videos, and William Hung are excellent modern examples of this bizarre attraction. Nicholas Martin and Stephen Frears do a tremendous job of presenting this story realistically, but with much love for their subject. The filmmakers pragmatically present the genuine reactions of people to Jenkins, and the comedy that results plays out naturally. Their approach is not to mock Jenkins as a person, but in some ways, examine the various ways people react to her. Jenkins is portrayed in a wonderfully lovely way, and the filmmakers and Streep make her such an endearing and sympathetic character that no one with a heart should want to ridicule her or her love for singing, regardless of her lack of talent.
The mixture of superb writing and the excellent performances of the cast superbly blend the comedy, drama, and poignancy of the story. Meryl Streep has to be the most reliable talent available for cinema. She always delivers superb work and her performance in this film is no exception. Streep, who in reality, is actually a great singer, not only puts her heart into this character, but also perfectly performs as a naturally tone-deaf opera singer wannabe. I would not be surprised at all if this performance earns her another Oscar nomination. Hugh Grant, who is best known for his awkward stammering, actually delivers a truly lovely and amusing performance as the eloquent stage actor and enabler St. Clair Bayfield. His performance is one also worthy of accolades next year. The real standout performance, though, comes from Simon Helberg who is absolutely hilarious as the more awkward and bashful Cosme’ McMoon, Florence’s often bewildered, befuddled and completely out of element pianist. The actor, who is best known for his work as Howard Wolowitz on the comedy series The Big Bang Theory, proves himself worthy of more cinematic work and is no slouch on the piano either.
I must say that this film might be my favorite comedy of the year so far. The humor had me in tears and the more sentimental moments really touched my heart. For some time I have been a fan director Stephen Frears, but it has been a while since he has made a truly outstanding movie. I am so happy that he took the excellent screenplay by Nicholas Martin and made another exceptional addition to his filmography. Though the movie is not like the usual tent poles that rake in the big bucks during the summer, I do truly hope it becomes a smash hit.