Quick Hit: Better than average acting performances and excellent costumes elevate poor plot pacing.
Florence Foster Jenkins tells the story of New York debutante Florence Foster Jenkins, an ex-piano prodigy, afflicted by syphilis, whose less than stellar musical talents are eventually put on display at Carnegie Hall. Meryl Streep plays the titular role, with Hugh Grant playing her common-law husband St. Clair and Simon Helberg playing her pianist. St. Clair has placed Florence on a pedestal of his own making, essentially creating a bubble where Florence thinks she’s much better than she actually is.
This is a pretty interesting aspect of the movie, albeit one that is played through with humor many times. The idea that you could successfully convince a classically trained musician that she is better than she is is frankly fascinating. That’s because we consistently hear about rich folk surrounding themselves with “Yes Men” who always say what their masters want to hear. This movie takes that to the extreme, with St. Clair convincing Florence her costumes are superb, her food tastes (sandwiches and potato salad) are the only foods that people eat, and that her singing voice is fantastic.
However, it goes deeper than that – St. Clair also goes through the trouble of hiding his affair from her, by staying in an apartment across town. He also helps to hide her hair loss from everyone, including herself – pulling off her wig after she eventually collapses from weariness. This is the most interesting aspect of the film – St. Clair’s love for Florence. What depth does it go to? Is it simply a surface love for what she can provide for him? Or does it go deeper, into actual feelings? Is he helping her not see her shortcomings out of love, or out of love for his lifestyle?
The movie works hard to convince us that it is out of love, and Grant’s performance goes forward with that. When he isn’t scowling, Grant is often looking at Florence with a look of love and affection. This is furthered by Helberg, who starts the film attempting to check his laughter in regards to Florence – who eventually begins to regard this patron of the arts with the respect he had before he saw her vocal performance.
Meryl Streep is excellent (when is she not?) at mirroring the unique vocal performances of the late Ms. Jenkins (indeed, the recording that is played in the end of the film is the true Florence, and you can tell nary a difference between). She also imbues her character with a softness of heart that is evident in the movies most disheartening scene – her performance in Carnegie hall. When she shoots a sideways glance towards St. Clair, eyes beginning to brim with tears, you can’t help but feel terrible for her. It just goes to show you that sometimes, it’s much better to just tell the truth.
Overall though, this film falls subject to severe pacing issues. The characters often wander through halls – beautifully decorated ones, but you feel as if the camera is moving with them just in an attempt to keep the plot moving. It’s often difficult to determine the time, as so often the scenes are set inside great halls that are essentially timeless. This isn’t always a problem, but it does no favors to the listless plot of the film, which is essentially meant to be building towards a final moment, but instead, falls on its face a number of times.
Overall, the performances are great, and the production value is high, but it’s not necessarily a good film. I’m giving it a “C+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"