When it comes to Meryl Streep one thing is for sure – you can expect her to put out a new movie each year. And if you’re a betting man or woman you can consider it a sure thing that she will get some type of awards attention. Her 2016 effort, “Florence Foster Jenkins” has once again led her to a Best Actress Oscar nomination despite it feeling like an incredibly familiar Meryl Streep performance.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” is a weird one – a bit off-balance yet entertaining. It’s an offbeat biopic about a New York City socialite and music lover and I bet you can guess her name. It’s 1944 and Florence (a quirky character custom-made for Streep) spends her time and fortune promoting opera and who aspires to be a singer. The problem is she hasn’t an ounce of talent. Her husband St. Clair (Hugh Grant in his best role in years), a failed Shakespearean actor, knows she can’t sing but he doesn’t dare reveal that truth to her.
That becomes a bit tricky after Florence decides to invest more time into her singing ‘career’. St. Clair goes out of his way to protect her from the truth including paying off her voice coach and secretly screening those who attend her small performances. At first it seems a bit nutty, but we quickly learn Florence has a terrible disease. So is St. Clair looking out for her or is he looking out for himself? It’s never that clear thanks to another layer of the story regarding St. Clair’s secret mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson).
As this stranger-than-fiction story unfolds it’s hard to gauge exactly how we are to approach it. Much of Florence’s flamboyance and caterwauling is framed as comedy and effectively so. But later the film wants to scold us for laughing even though it basically does the same thing. It’s a strange and confusing moral high ground to take.
Something the film nails is the casting. Streep excels with these eccentric characters that she constantly falls back on at this stage of her career. Hugh Grant is very good as is Rebecca Ferguson in a much smaller role. But it’s Simon Helberg who steals the show. He is a hoot playing the skittish yet ambitious pianist Cosmé McMoon. He’s hired to be Florence’s personal piano player but is dumbfounded by her horrible singing. Helberg can be wildly expressive which adds to the humor.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” is an impossible movie to nail down. It’s a veritable stew of comedy, drama, and commentary. Yet despite being uneven and a bit stodgy, it’s hard not to be sucked in by its quirkiness. It can be laugh-out-loud hilarious but also tender and heart-breaking. At the same time it does little to stand out and its uneven story is a problem despite being entertaining.