Florence Foster Jenkins (the person) was a 1940s Manhattan socialite and arts patron whose desire to be a professional singer, shall we say, outpaced her abilities. “Florence Foster Jenkins” (the movie), on the other hand, is quite competent, a cheerful ode to the values of loyalty and determination that hopes you’ll overlook (or agree with?) the dubious “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy that it tacitly endorses.
It was directed by Stephen Frears, an old hand with stories about matronly patricians based on real people; see “The Queen” and “Philomena,” for example. Here he has Meryl Streep in the warm, daffy title role, with the action set in 1944. Madame Florence and her doting, platonic husband/manager, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), are regular sponsors of artistic programs appealing to New York’s upper crust. Like many such patrons, they fancy themselves amateur performers (St Clair was once a small-time actor) and yearn to be more directly involved. Florence muses that she’d like to sing again, maybe give a recital.
Well, the nice thing about being rich and surrounded by enablers is that you don’t necessarily need to be talented to succeed. And to be clear, Florence cannot sing. We discover this when she rehearses with a new pianist, a bow-tied little pixie named Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, showing off his real piano skills), whose face on hearing her caterwaul that first time is alone worth the price of admission. Not only is Florence apparently tone-deaf, her enunciation of opera’s many foreign words is incomprehensible, and she tries to sing passages that would be difficult even for an experienced soprano. Cosme is bemused when St Clair shows no visible sign of realizing how bad Florence sounds, and astonished when her voice teacher placates her with non-praise like “There is no one like you” and “You’ll never be more ready.” Why is no one telling her the truth?
The more we learn about Florence and her sad history, the more we see just how much truth is being kept from her. She knows St Clair has his own apartment, but she’s unaware of his relationship with a younger woman, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). Indeed, St Clair has dedicated his life to shielding Florence from unhappy realities. He ensures that the recital is only attended by “true music lovers,” meaning their friends, people who won’t laugh at her. He bribes the music critics, and denies entry to the un-bribable ones. Frears, working from a screenplay by British TV writer Nicholas Martin, plays all of this sneaking around like a P.G. Wodehouse farce, with Grant and Helberg nimbly tiptoeing through the social minefields.
St Clair’s deception comes from his devotion to Florence, not because she demands it — and that’s an important distinction. This isn’t a story of unchecked ego, of a rich lady ignoring reality in favor of creating her own. A character like that would be mockable. But Florence, sweet and generous (she writes Cosme into her will), is genuinely unaware of her shortcomings because everyone keeps lying to her about them. This makes her an object of pity, not derision. As bad as she is, we find ourselves not wanting her to find out, especially not the hard way. Let the old do-gooder have her delusions. What’s the harm?
The critical part of me — the part that has endured enough bad art, thank you very much, and that doesn’t believe in giving insincere praise — grows uncomfortable in the latter stages of the film, when people begin to acknowledge Florence’s ineptitude yet applaud her anyway. Even granting that the very act of getting onstage takes courage, it feels wrong — even cruel — to foster a performer’s erroneous view of herself. Seeing people do exactly that in the film’s climax is depressing, not inspiring.
But the part of me susceptible to cheerful, funny movies about colorful characters, especially characters who act out of love (mostly) rather than self-interest — that part can’t resist “Florence Foster Jenkins,” wrong-headed though it may be in some respects. Near the end, when Madame Florence starts to become self-aware, she remarks, “People may say I couldn’t sing. But no one can say I didn’t sing.” The 110 charming minutes we’ve spent with her and her associates make it hard to argue with her logic.
(110 minutes; PG-13; opens Friday, Aug. 12 at multiple area theaters.) GRADE: B+