Nutshell: A lovely, bittersweet story of a woman determined to pursue her dreams. Streep is just plain glorious as Florence, and Grant does what might be his best work as her husband St. Clair. Most amazingly though, as Cosmé McMoon, Simon Helberg made me forget about BBT‘s Wolowitz. Grade: A
“No chives, I know. But they tell me there’s a war on, Bunny.”
Everybody has a dream they’ve got tucked away because it ain’t gonna happen. Something they think they’re amazing at, even though all evidence points to the contrary. With me, it’s writing well thought out reviews. With Florence Foster Jenkins, it was singing. She plugged away, throwing her obvious shortcomings to the wind. I believe I’ve found my spirit animal. And in the delightful film Florence Foster Jenkins, I’ve found an early frontrunner in this year’s Oscar race.
Florence Foster Jenkins (or FFJ, because I’m incredibly lazy) was one of those larger-than-life individuals everyone hears about but rarely encounters. She lived every day to the fullest, with excitement, wide-eyed enthusiasm, and a bathtub of potato salad. She had to; at the age of eighteen she contracted syphilis from her husband on her wedding night. Her health problems plagued her her entire adult life, but she always managed to keep a firm hold on her joie de vivre. So in 1944 when she decides to resume her singing lessons, second husband St. Clair gathers up the troops, including Cosmé McMoon, a clueless but talented young pianist. St. Clair manages to keep her performances invitation-only, but one day when Florence decides to bring joy to the American troops fighting in WWII the best way she knows how; by recording a song.
FFJ is an enticing blend of humor, heartache and joy, and director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity, The Grifters) does a wonderful balancing act between these emotions. But as with The Queen, liberties are taken with the subject’s story. In real life, Florence and St. Clair were never married, they live in a common-law relationship until her death. But in the film, they have a quasi-open relationship, with St. Clair living in a separate apartment (that Florence paid for) complete with lovely and intelligent mistress Kathleen (The White Queen‘s Rebecca Ferguson) who feels like a second fiddle because…she is. St. Clair’s first love is Florence, and while his relationship with Kathleen shows the “real life” going on beyond the doors of the privileged – and at one point provides a bit of 1940s style slapstick – it also serves to show filmgoers where his heart truly lies. And Grant’s touching portrayal is the quiet sort of high-quality performance that’s often overlooked but shouldn’t be. If there’s any justice in this world, he’ll get a nomination come Academy season.
Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg is fantastic as Cosmé . He definitely brings his comedic chops to the role, but there’s a solid dramatic actor behind all those giggles. In a scene where Florence stops by Cosmé’s apartment because she can’t bear to be alone during St. Clair’s “golf trip”, Helberg manages to not only hold his own with Streep, but go toe-to-toe as the characters bond. It’s a beautiful scene, and hopefully the start of other dramatic turns for the Helberg. And I’d hate myself if I didn’t mention Nina Arianda’s role as Agnes, a chorus girl turned socialite-by-marriage. Her loudly honest, unabashedly racy character is the Everyman of the film, with zero tolerance for the uppity stuff. Yet there’s a stubborn, protective streak in Agnes that’s endearing, and she’s a great counter-balance to all of the quiet Upper East Side ladies.
As for La Streep? She is, as always, wonderful. Her Florence is a delight, even when her singing voice reduced grown men to tears (of laughter.) And her singing? To quote Judy Kaye, who played FFJ on stage in Souvenir, “It’s hard work to sing badly well. You could sing badly badly for a while, but you’ll hurt yourself in the long run.” As someone who can actually sing – peep Riki and the Flash, and even Mama Mia – it had to be hard work to slaughter tones with seemingly reckless abandon.
Writer Nicholas Martin delivers a screenplay that pokes fun at the upper class in an off-the-cuff way. There’s no pointed spite or envy of “them” here, just an understanding of the differences that comes out as quips rather than barbs. Aided, of course, by Streep’s exceptional delivery. “How could we not start with a soup? There would be a riot!” Martin and Frears also manage to get viewers sucked into the Florence’s delight, rather than playing her tuneless singing as a bad joke. Was I tearing up from laughter at the screening? Oh yeah. But just like the Grinch, thanks to the captivating earnestness of the character, of the my heart grew three sizes that day.
Production design by Alan MacDonald shows homes of the wealthy that feel lived-in rather than airless set pieces. Consolata Boyle’s costuming goes from upper class older women holding on to 20s garden fashion, to rolicking 40s men and women of the Greatest Generation. As MacDonald and Boyle have both worked with Frears in the past, they all come together and provide a seamless “visual experience”. Yeah yeah – I’m gettin’ all RTVF101 in this joint. tl;dr? It looks good y’all.
With Florence Foster Jenkins, badness is glorious. And so is this film.
P.S.: Wonder what the real reviews were for FFJ’s Carnegie Hall performance? Time posted a snippet of one their reviews from back then, including a YouTube vid that lets you listen to her delightfully bad rendition of “Adele’s Laughing Song”. Sure, it’s funny. But it’s also incredibly heartfelt. And you can’t hate on that.