The Hippo


May 25, 2020








Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins (PG-13)
Film Reviews by Amy Diaz

By Amy Diaz

A woman renowned for her terrible singing and her arts patronage gives a concert at Carnegie Hall in Florence Foster Jenkins, a slightly sweet, slightly soggy oatmeal-like based-on-a-true-story movie that kicks back and lets Meryl Streep do the work.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a great supporter of the arts in 1940s New York who not only gives her money but also sometimes foists her talent upon other music lovers. Sometimes she creates tableau, with herself as the lead Valkyrie, for example, in a tableau set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” (Odd choice for 1944 America.) Sometimes, she offers a singing performance, with her longtime husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), filling the audience with friends and friendly critics (made all the friendlier by a little money slipped to them). 
Actually, as we see in the movie’s opening scenes, Bayfield’s “husband” position is somewhat non-traditional for a 1940s tiara-wearing New York lady of means. Jenkins married young and contracted syphilis from her first husband. The disease has left her increasingly weak and shut down sexual contact between Florence and St. Clair, who leaves her apartment every night to head to his own, more modest apartment where he lives with Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), his girlfriend. What Florence knows, or allows herself to know, about this situation we’re never really sure.
Nor are we certain how much she knows about her own limited vocal abilities. When she hears a noted conductor is around, she hires him to tutor her, accompanied by young pianist Comsé McMoon (Simon Helberg). The conductor, who likes her money just fine, never says what he really thinks of her voice. And McMoon, who also enjoys making a steady living, follows St. Clair’s lead in smiling and playing when he’s expected to do so, no matter how much he giggles in the elevator later. Despite fading health and slightly more public notoriety due to the release of a record,  Florence plunges ahead and decides to play Carnegie Hall.
What is this movie trying to say about Florence? There is a scene, late in the film, where Streep lets Florence drop the 1940s-movie older-woman-clucking-hen bit and suggests a woman who has been both buoyed and disappointed by the things she loves most in her life — music, public performance and St. Clair. Visiting McMoon, she puts just enough of a spin on the way she says “golfing trips,” the official reason St. Clair is away, that we know she knows, to some extent, that he’s not golfing alone. Then she explains and demonstrates the degree to which she once excelled at piano. But now, due to nerve damage (perhaps caused by the syphilis, though the movie doesn’t state it directly), she can’t really play with one hand. She plays a simple, lovely piece with McMoon providing the left hand she can’t use and the scene taken as a whole gets to a more savvy, wistful but real person. There is something very understandable, admirable even, about a person who loves music, loves making music and doesn’t, to quote Sesame Street, worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear.
Most of the movie, however, treats Florence more like an adorable old lady Muppet than a real human person. A person whose love for making music and making music in front of a crowd is greater than her qualms about her lack of ability is interesting. A cutesy person in crazy outfits who can buy applause is sort of a nutjob, and far less interesting. I’m not sure where the movie comes down on Florence — or on St. Clair. Is he a genuinely loving husband? An enabler who sticks around because, a failed actor himself, he enjoys the proximity to high art? As with Florence, it isn’t until after the movie’s halfway point that we start to get a sense of a more complex person in St. Clair.
Something tells me that the one-woman show of Meryl Streep telling stories as Florence Foster Jenkins would be far more entertaining than this fully fleshed out affair and that suggests that this movie is just a Streep performance surrounded by a lot of lesser elements. And it’s a perfectly fine, middle-of-the-road, better-than-most-people but only OK for Streep performance. But I think the movie needed to do more to provide a layered look at the woman and a more engrossing story for movie-going fans of Streep. B-
Rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material. Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Nicholas Martin, Florence Foster Jenkins is an hour and 50 minutes long and distributed by Paramount Pictures. 

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