Like its titular, tone deaf heroine, Florence Foster Jenkins shouldn't entertain as much as it does. The movie is broadly written and performed, gliding past any issues that would distract from the spectacle this shaky chanteuse makes of herself.
Florence, as the movie's marketers scramble to explain, was a 20th century New York City heiress and patron of the arts, and all she wanted in return was to sing opera. The problem was that she couldn't, in any sense of the art. She did concerts, badly, and recordings worse.
Incredibly, she became a star.
Rather than explore Florence's insistence of talent where there's none, director Stephen Frears does everything possible to keep her mediocrity charming, even inspiring. Much of it works, especially three core performances feeling lifted from a 1940s musical set at that century's turn, selling old fashion to the rafters.
No surprise that one performance lifting the movie is Meryl Streep's as Florence, allowing one of our finest actors a chance to showboat. We know from Mamma Mia! and Ricki and the Flash that Streep sings beautifully, so faking Florence's shrill assaults upon eardrums is a new challenge for her, one she obviously relishes.
The other two performances are indeed surprising. Hugh Grant hasn't been allowed such range in years, playing Florence's supportive, suavely exploitative husband St. Clair Bayfield. St. Clair was inclined to bribe critics to write reviews that wouldn't embarrass his wife, yet kept a lover (Rebecca Ferguson) in a boho apartment. Grant's caddish charm melts at the right moments to reveal St. Clair's conflict of heart.
The shocker, however, is Simon Helberg's Cosme McMoon, a newly hired pianist whose ears introduce us to Florence's singing, and his reaction is priceless. But Cosme is more than a walking spit take; he becomes Florence's confidante, a protector she needs. Having never watched The Big Bang Theory, I wasn't familiar with Helberg but there's an eager beaverness to this performance that's exciting to discover.
These three characters are wonderful, so it's a shame that screenwriter Nicholas Martin doesn't provide slightly meatier material for the actors. What is behind Florence's delusion? Did she never question St. Clair's affair? Could she really be so naive to derisive listeners? And what besides a cornball speech from a floozy (Nina Arianda, doing Judy Holliday) made her so popular?
Good questions that don't interest Frears or Martin. There's too much exquisite period detail and costuming to attend, so many familiar bootstrap musical beats to hit. Florence Foster Jenkins is too much old-fashioned fun to saddle with ideas. Just sit back and let Meryl screech.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.