Florence Foster Jenkins

By Lodge, Guy | Variety, April 19, 2016 | Go to article overview

Florence Foster Jenkins


Lodge, Guy, Variety


FILM REVIEW

Florence Foster Jenkins

DIRECTOR: Stephen Frears

STARRING: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant

The show's not over 'til the flat lady sings in "Florence Foster Jenkins," Stephen Frears' bright, bubbly and suitably ear-bursting biopic of surely the least gifted chanteuse ever to sell out Carnegie Hall. She sings rather early on, however, leaving Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin with few dramatic or comedic cards to play for the pic's remaining 90 minutes - beyond the admittedly delicious spectacle of the ever-game Meryl Streep taking a musical meat cleaver to respectable operetta. Less rich and less rounded than "Marguerite," the recent French arthouse hit drawn from Jenkins' story, this good-humored confection - slyly fashioned as a reproach to more discerning culture critics - will nonetheless strike a chord with auds who thrilled to Streep's comparably high-camp impersonation of Julia Child. Seventy-two years after her passing, expect Jenkins' name to sell out a few more theaters from beyond the grave.

Martin's fast-and-loose script reserves most of its animus for anyone attempting to halt the tone-deaf diva's progress through the concert halls of 1940s Manhattan - making a toxic villain of New York Post critic Earl Wilson (a flamboyantly sneering Christian McKay), who dared to suggest her throttlednightingale trill was, well, for the birds. Is buying acclaim morally acceptable if audience and performer alike are enjoying themselves? Is it charitable or cruelly condescending to applaud heartfelt ineptitude in a spirit of gleeful irony? These are questions with which the film, perhaps inadvertently, leaves viewers, though it's having far too much fun with her to address them.

Once hailed as American cinema's most meticulous thespian technician, Streep has, if not at any cost to her eerie knack for verisimilitude, broadened into something of a high-volume barnstormer: Whether playing Margaret Thatcher or "Mamma Mia!," her latter-day work is largely defined by its palpable eagerness to entertain. And while some have complained that the actress has a monopoly on plum screen roles for women her age, that very rafterreaching enthusiasm makes her an ideal fit for Jenkins, even if incompetence can hardly come easily to her. (Viewers should know well by now that the star can more than capably hold a tune.) Streep certainly has a ball mimicking the scarcely human strangulations of Jenkins' vocal technique, but there's an empathetic ardor for performance at work here, one that coaxes even bewildered viewers into her corner.

Frears gifts his star with a dream of a movie-star entrance, as she's lowered haphazardly from the ceiling in Jenkins' signature tinselly angel wings and a torrent of beige chiffon. She's introduced as the climactic star of a ropey supper-club variety show directed by her husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield (a top-form Hugh Grant), a failed Shakespearean actor more aware than his wife of his creative shortcomings. …

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