by James Wigderson | August 13, 2016 6:13 pm
For Florence Foster Jenkins, the inevitable comparison will be to Sunset Boulevard, the life of an aging performer living a Potemkin existence. However, instead of Billy Wilder’s wicked insights into end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, director Stephen Frears goes into the sheltered world of “high society” after the age of Gatsby. The result is a sympathetic look at the real life of a performer who, but for her money and patronage of the arts, would never have been heard singing outside the shower.
Meryl plays the title character, a real-life high society grand dame who lives in an artificial construction built of underserved flattery for her singing talent. Streep has a history of mastery of difficult and complex characters, but could her hardest challenge have been singing terribly without it becoming blatantly cartoonish?
The Prince Potemkin character is played by Hugh Grant, who plays the title character’s protector and common law husband St Clair Bayfield. Grant’s character is more than just the sponge of Jenkins’ largesse. He is her promoter, companion, and even occasional co-performer. A failed actor of limited ability by his own assessment, Bayfield takes on a different role as the producer and stage manager of Jenkins’ life.
Into this insulated world stumbles Cosmé McMoon, played by Simon Helberg, who becomes Jenkins’ foppish, overpaid-but-talented music accompanist. Unlike Sunset’s Joe Gillis, McMoon’s relationship with the title character remains platonic. But McMoon’s facial expressions, his protests and even his reluctant complicity in the illusion Jenkins inhabits are the guides reminding the audience that, yes, it really was that bad.
What could have been farce is tempered by Jenkins’ constant companion, death. The reason for Jenkins’ sheltering from the truth by her husband and others is exposed early, although the motives of those around her are questionable throughout the film. What spares the audience from cringing at every embarrassing Jenkins’ performance is our sympathy for those around her who are devoted to protecting her.
Florence Foster Jenkins is not the masterpiece of Sunset Boulevard, and Frears is not Wilder. But Grant and Streep are very good in their performances and Helberg is restrained enough not to go just that far over the top. The supporting characters lend enough texture that even a CGI 1940s New York cannot obscure how Jenkins’ isolation from reality is not isolated in its effects.
The true value of the film is how it punctures the world of flatterers and pretension at the highest echelons of New York society. (We’ll save the obvious political commentary for another time, even if it is bipartisan.) For that reason, but not that reason alone, Florence Foster Jenkins is a welcome break from Summer comic book fair and kids’ movies.
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