Stephan Frear’s latest film, Florence Foster Jenkins lives somewhere between “rom-com for retirees” and “Hugh Grant really wants an Oscar.”
The film offers some genuinely laughable moments and a performance you’d expect from Meryl Streep playing the titular music patron and painfully bad vocalist. Overall though, Florence Foster Jenkins follows a very by-the-numbers formula for a vanilla film experience that is churned out all too frequently by the Hollywood machine.
The plot of the film narrows itself to Foster Jenkins’ final year alive but it does a sufficient job of paying credit to her earlier accomplishments. The historical figure was infamous for her terrible operatics but she was also an incredibly strong financial supporter of the musicians in New York. Writer Nicholas Martin was able to highlight her legacy and importance without having the comedic effect of her voice undermine them. Which isn’t an easy feat if we’re being honest, Meryl Streep’s singing in the film is as hilarious as it is shrill.
I was worried that centring an entire plot around the comedic device of a bad singing voice would grow old really quickly. Fortunately, Streep’s acting chops and the comedy of keeping Jenkins in the dark about how badly she sung, kept the laughs going throughout FFJ.
Another key to the film’s comedic success was Simon Helberg’s portrayal of Foster Jenkin’s pianist, Cosme McMoon. The camera cuts to him holding in laughter got me giggling almost every time. In addition to Helberg’s obvious comedic talent, Hugh Grant stuck to what he does best in playing St Clair Bayfield: being the most lovable guy on the block who also has a hot, young side-piece.
Surprisingly, Helberg and Grant manage to snag some laughs of their own, mostly through how adorable they both are. McMoon being a light-weight drinker and Bayfield stopping at nothing to make sure his wife is kept oblivious to her talents – shenanigans abound. My favourite was a great party sequence full of early bohemian jazz energy. Grant breaks out some dance moves, Helberg gets his drink on, and the next morning mess found by Streep was all in good fun.
Underneath all of the fun, there was something that I couldn’t shake. The whole outline felt incredibly recycled. The weaving between rom-com, farce, and Oscar fodder ended up feeling predictable and easy. For a good chunk of the film, it felt like a bunch of studio executives met up and asked, “How can we get Meryl Streep into another movie?” Alexandre Desplat’s music swelled exactly when we were supposed to tear up and turned bubbly when we were supposed to laugh. These aren’t new moves for Hollywood but something about how it was done here that felt a little cheap.
Florence Foster Jenkins follows the recipe for a very standard feel-good film. Blend together lacklustre direction, a perfectly sympathetic/funny lead, a quirky side-kick, and an iconic time period for the costume designers. The result is a movie that will grab a couple award nominations and can safely be watched with your grandparents, without having to explain any plot lines. It’s cute and it’s good for a handful of truly funny moments, just don’t expect a whole lot more than that.
Florence Foster Jenkins gets a middling 3 out of 5 stars.
Florence Foster Jenkins is rated PG-13 and can now be seen at select theatres near you.