Meryl Streep elevates Stephen Frears’ gentle comedy about a real-life terrible opera singer in 1940s New York. Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.
“Florence Foster Jenkins,” wisely, makes us wait a bit for the money shot — or, rather, the money note. Stephen Frears’ gentle comedy, about a real-life legendarily terrible opera singer in 1940s New York, meanders about for a while, toying with us, before the title character actually opens her mouth in song. And when she does, it’s worth the wait.
We know Meryl Streep can sing. She’s done it, beautifully, in a number of movies (among them: “Into the Woods,” “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Ricki and the Flash,” “Postcards from the Edge”). And we know that she can sing while acting (sounds obvious, but it’s that thing Russell Crowe forgot to do in “Les Misérables”). But she’s never quite done anything like this. The noises that come out of Florence’s mouth call to mind a trapped dog, or some small creature that’s terribly ill. The notes sneak up on you (and her), like an unpleasant surprise attack. Sometimes the note seems to get stuck, as does Florence’s frozen smile. Sometimes, it’s almost right but slips away, like an aerialist just missing the trapeze bar and falling, spectacularly, to a net far below.
It is, as so many Streep movies seem to be these days, a wonderful performance in a movie that isn’t quite as good as she is. Not that “Florence Foster Jenkins” is at all bad — it’s mostly great fun, with just a bit too much gooeyness near the end — but you wonder how it might have worked with someone less charismatic at its center. The movie isn’t quite a biopic, but mostly takes place during a specific time in its main character’s life: 1944, as she prepares for a concert at Carnegie Hall, encouraged by her affectionate not-quite-husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), and endured by her long-suffering pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, who’s excellent at mouth-twitching).
Movie Review ★★★
‘Florence Foster Jenkins,’ with Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson and Nina Arianda. Directed by Stephen Frears, from a screenplay by Nicholas Martin. 111 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material. Several theaters.
The real-life connection between Bayfield (a Brit, and a failed actor) and socialite/performer Jenkins was a fascinating one — he managed her career for decades — and Grant, as always, slyly leaves us wanting more of this smooth-voiced charmer. But the film belongs to Streep, who makes Florence a sweetly feathery dreamer — singing like an angel, in a voice that only she can hear.
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