Movies like this rarely get released in the summer.
Movies like Florence Foster Jenkins rarely get released in the summertime. Studios usually hold them back until the end of the fall so they can stay fresh in the minds of awards season voters when it comes time to hand out little statuettes. But after sitting through the film it’s not difficult to see how this ended up with an August opening date. Despite its blatant Oscar bait aesthetics, Florence possesses a shocking faculty for crowd pleasing laughter.
Set during WWII, the film follows Meryl Streep as the titular Florence, a New York socialite and heiress who lives for music. She owns a music club and regularly puts on shows to her exclusive group of members with her husband St. Clair Mayfield (Hugh Grant). Theirs is a mirthful existence. Warm, inviting and typified by elegance and charm. But the performances don’t end on her club’s stage. Florence’s entire circle is something of a cabaret.
The film takes great care to set up a truly milquetoast approach to prestige filmmaking when introducing the audience to Florence’s world. The first act feels like a million other films with its straightforward visual storytelling and reserved tenor. There’s foreshadowing surrounding the transactional nature of Florence’s life, with famed conductor Arturo Toscanini coming to her like The Godfather on the day of his daughter’s wedding to gain extra funding for a show. The little cracks in this facade begin to pile up, as we see Florence go to bed ill and weakened, having taken off the veil of her posh wig. This is followed by the revelation that her husband St. Clair stays in his own apartment, one that seems to come with its own live-in girlfriend.
Once Florence decides she wants to put on a concert and they introduce her new personal accompanist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), the movie begins to shine. That’s because this plot point reveals the biggest secret about Florence’s perfect little life. She can’t fucking sing. At all. In fact, her singing is so terrible as to be its own kind of art, a splintered medium of expression that runs parallel to singing without ever crossing paths with the melodic pastime. Watching someone as talented as Streep so brilliantly portray such a lack of acumen is one of the funniest things on screen this year.
That humor around Florence’s warbling and the lengths St. Clair must go to keep hecklers out of her field of vision keeps the rest of the film consistently entertaining, even as the realities plaguing this makeshift family hew closer and closer to tragedy. On paper, the sum facts of Florence’s life should make for a real dirge of a film, but these unfortunate truths get hidden inside a pleasing, farcical tapestry that accentuates sincerity and passion above the reductive temptation of snark.
At this point in her life, Florence had lived fifty years with the Syphilis she contracted the night she married her first husband. The disease ravaged her nervous system, preventing her from playing the piano and no doubt playing a formative part in her inability to carry a tune. That she dedicates her life to singing anyway and doing so for the enjoyment of others as much as herself is stirring. At first, the idea of a rich woman’s philandering husband paying people not to boo at her poor vocal stylings seems fodder for a cynical look at the nature of self-deception, but Florence is a sweeter film than that.
Its biggest strength is the cast. Streep, at this point, is so reliable in her greatness as to be taken for granted, but her chemistry both with Grant as her husband and Helberg as her pianist, is what holds the film together. They form a powerful triangle of complementary temperaments that breed just as much rapturous comedy as stirring pathos. Where Florence is larger than life and bursting at the seams with love for those around her, St. Clair is reserved, cunning and shows how much he cares in oblique, somewhat underhanded fashion. McMoon, with the elasticity of Helberg’s facial reactions, acts as an audience insertion point, struggling to contain laughter one minute and the embodiment of teeth chattering anxiety the next.
The subplot of his extramarital affair becomes hard to watch once it’s apparent that he and Florence don’t have “an understanding” as he’s affectionately put it. This deceit casts the rest of the film in a harsher light as it calls into question his true motivations. But as the film goes on through the last act of Florence’s Carnegie Hall performance, it’s clear the lengths St. Clair will go to keep the final days of her life as joyful as possible. Theirs is a love story that warms the heart in spite of its inherent peculiarity. With lesser performers, Florence might have devolved into a trite weepie begging for end of the year plaudits, but with such a game cast, it’s the rare bit of counterprogramming that actually shines in the summertime.