Tuesday, August 30, 2016
Florence Foster Jenkins
Three fine performances, and a deeply unstable moral core. Meryl Streep is excellent as Florence Foster Jenkins, a lady with more money than talent, who lives for music. Hugh Grant is the husband, a former actor who carefully shields her from anything unpleasant, including his own cozy secret life with a pretty girlfriend. Simon Helberg plays Madame Florence's diffident accompanist with a charm that is not destroyed by the movie's determination to lure him out of the closet. Florence evokes affection in those closest to her, and no wonder -- she has been fighting valiantly for years against the ravages of syphilis, a legacy of her more conventionally unfaithful first husband.
The effects of syphilis famously include mental deterioration in the late stages. Florence, formerly a talented amateur pianist, is now under the mostly-harmless delusion that she can sing. Mostly harmless, I say, because her great wealth leads everyone around her to lie constantly to her about the extent of her ability. Everyone in this movie can be bought, and is bought explicitly, except for the character presented to us as the bad guy, a famous critic who has as much passion for music as Florence does, who rejects the ever increasing bribes offered him, and whose scathing, honest review of the concert -- the honesty that kills her, in a sense -- is fueled by the fact that the Carnegie Hall is supposed to be a standard of excellence, not a vanity venue.
The movie just isn't sure where it comes down. "The Inspiring True Story of the World's Worst Singer", proclaims the poster. "Inspiring" is an interesting adjective here. Inspired how? Inspired to do what? The problem is that Florence Foster Jenkins the movie, while entertaining for the most part, cannot decide what exactly it is about, due to a deeply unstable moral core which boils down to the message "Don't be mean". Perhaps it's about loyalty and faithfulness, virtues stressed by Florence's husband as he persuades the pianist to stand by Florence even as her concert venues become more grandiose -- except that the husband's faithfulness doesn't extend so far as to give Florence his undivided love. "Stay the night with me," she begs him as he prepares to head out to the brownstone apartment she rents for him. (Due to her syphilis, their marriage has always been sexless -- I won't describe it as celibate because he keeps his little establishment on the side to ensure that he doesn't have to be celibate.) Perhaps it's about the dignity of people and their dreams -- but Florence's concerts are not attended by well-wishers, but by paid sycophants and people whose eyes are bright not with joy but with suppressed hysterics. One of the funniest scenes in the movie involves a young lady who literally crawls out of a concert, gasping with laughter. Florence is not respected or beloved. People listen to her to laugh at her, and it breaks her when she realizes that. The movie softens the historical record -- Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso didn't attend her concerts from affection, but because she was an unwitting comic sensation.
I'm very curious to see another recent retelling of this story, the French movie Marguerite. It, apparently, is more alive to the inherent vanity of the main character (given her name, Marguerite Dumont) and the morally debilitating effects of enabling that vanity on everyone around her. Florence Foster Jenkins could have been a much stronger movie if the motivations of her husband had been more deeply examined. Here's a man who marries a rich woman at the long end of life expectancy for syphilis -- and then watches her live another twenty-five years. A lot could have been made of that. A lot wasn't.
But it is entertaining to hear Meryl Streep hit every mangled note just as Florence did.