One of the hardest things for a professional actor to do is to play a bad actor. How do you discard years of training and your natural gift for a single role, then pick them back up again when the project is over? Surely that same quandary applies to singers, and if that’s the case, Meryl Streep actually deserves her yearly Oscar nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins. Streep has sung beautifully throughout her career, from Postcards from the Edge to Mamma Mia!, but in her latest, she adopts a tinny, high-pitched warble that, if this were only a slightly broader comedy than it already is, would make windows shatter.
Florence Foster Jenkins is an uneven but occasionally poignant biopic about a character who underestimates the wide gulf between those who appreciate art and those who make it. In post-war New York, its protagonist is a patron of the arts who uses her considerable wealth and status to support concerts for the upper class. After growing tired of standing on the sidelines, she begins taking singing lessons with a legendary vocal coach. Because of her clout, neither he nor her doting husband Bayfield (Hugh Grant) have the heart to tell her the truth about her talents, or lack thereof. In fact, the strategy doesn’t even need to be spoken aloud. In their small world rife with aging socialites, a little deception in the name of flattery is to be expected.
Subterfuge comes less naturally to her accompanist Cosme (Simon Helberg), a struggling composer who’s taken on the job with Florence for some extra cash. For Cosme, withholding judgment at her awful singing voice is akin to being asked not to laugh in church; his wide eyes and angular face seem to be constantly on the verge of bursting. Everyone else lies effortlessly, to her and to each other. Florence and Bayfield have a platonic marriage, but he sneaks off every night to live with his girlfriend Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson) in a modest apartment. Bayfield tells people that she approves of this arrangement, but does she? Based on his comfort with deception, it’s more likely that, in their marriage, the truth is simply better left unsaid.
For a while, the film rollicks along as one of those simplistic comedies in which older folks embarrass themselves for comedic benefit, like The Full Monty or Calendar Girls. Which is fine. But when Florence sets her sights on Carnegie Hall, an ickiness sets in. In some scenes, we are asked to laugh at Florence and her delusions of grandeur. In others, we are forced into pity, particularly when the origins of her mysterious health condition are finally revealed. Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) withholds information about Florence and Bayfield, putting us in the odd position of laughing at the machinations of their subterfuge (which, of course, involves such comedic staples as buying up every newspaper in town), then immediately regretting our giggles.
Still, the bold performances by a pair of stars nearly save the day. Grant has fully transcended the sheepish persona of his youth; here, he uncovers layers of meaning in a tragically complex character. Meanwhile, Streep seems to have finally found a proper vehicle to indulge for her recent run of hamminess (August: Osage County, Into the Woods) in service of a character that, had she not been based on a real person, would likely be viewed as too ridiculous to exist. As Jenkins, Streep hits all the right notes—the comedic highs and the mournful lows. She never struggles to find the pitch, which almost makes the film’s schizophrenic tone seem normal. In other words, maybe a song doesn’t have to be perfectly written, as long as it’s sung with feeling.
Florence Foster Jenkins opens everywhere on Friday.