September 16 — September 29
Florence Foster Jenkins
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Sep. Sep. 16-29 – no screening on Sep. 24)
We take Meryl Streep for granted when she’s off-screen, acknowledging her status as America’s finest living actress but thinking little of the amazing fact that she can do anything. When we see her on-screen, it’s a different story: we forget the legend and become overwhelmed by the monumental talent. We’re blown away all over again, regardless of how many Streep performances we’ve marveled at. Florence Foster Jenkins, the semi-comedic, semi-tragic story of real-life wealthy New York socialite and notoriously awful amateur singer, highlights Streep’s uncanny ability to take a potentially one-dimensional role and make it a fully-realized human being, a person with feelings and a complex personality. Other actors would relish the humor of the self-deluded Jenkins, an apparently sweet person and patroness of the arts who also gifted the world with her own mind-bogglingly terrible desecrations of opera during the 1940s. It’s easy to mock the poor woman—but the film’s humor comes not so much from Jenkins’s lack of chops but the great lengths her boyfriend St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and other friends went to protect her from the painful truth. Streep herself is outstanding as Jenkins. The actress, of course, is a good singer—and it takes a real singer to play an authentically bad singer. As Jenkins, Streep sings like someone with a bit of knowledge of technique but absolutely no ear for music. But she’s just as great when she’s not on stage, performing for horrified audiences (many of whom were requested to cheer regardless of what they heard). Streep makes Jenkins more than just a one-note caricature of a pampered dilettante: she earns genuine audience sympathy and even respect for her courage. The movie, snappily directed by Stephen Frears and intelligently written by Nicolas Martin, is a bit like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood—the based-on-true-life story of a ridiculously untalented film director who achieves a sort of pathos and redemption through the very purity of his naïveté. Many historians contend that Jenkins’s tone-deafness was the tragic result of contracting syphilis early in life (through a brief, failed marriage) and Streep obviously did her research to convey the symptoms of the disease in an era when traditional medical wisdom recommended remedies of arsenic and mercury. Despite the bafflement and mirth Jenkins’s self-financed concerts provoked in New York high society (as well as self-righteous indignation among the more uptight critics), Florence Foster Jenkins doesn’t ridicule its titular heroine. Her off-key singing is funny, but the film (and Streep) never mock her bravery or heart. In today’s YouTube age, we’re inundated with clueless amateur “talents” whose videos go viral due to their kitsch appeal. Frears remembers a less jaded era when lousy artists didn’t become superstars through ironic appreciation. Today, there’s a teenage equivalent of Jenkins racking up millions of views with his or her wretched vocal stylings. In the early 20th century, audiences didn’t know how to react to someone like Jenkins—so earnest, so sincere, so confident… so bad. In real life, Jenkins became a minor celebrity whose performances became a sort of proto-“cringe” comedy. Her small-scale notoriety might have marked the point where Americans embraced the concept of “camp,” democratizing taste and making fame accessible to the untalented. Or she might’ve been a portent of the collapse of “standards” in American art. In either case, Jenkins was a fascinating figure, someone who really loved music (she was considered a piano prodigy in her youth) and wanted to belong to the world of creative talents that she helped support financially with the fortune she inherited from her father. She did achieve artistic distinction—but not exactly as she might’ve envisioned it. The movie doesn’t treat this as total tragedy, nor as unexpected triumph. As we are when we watch Ed Wood, viewers are ambivalent about Jenkins—we wish her well, and we admire her pluck, but she’s clearly never going to be successful. Critics might frown at the movie’s semi-inspirational third act, which shows how Jenkins deals with her limitations, but Streep’s performance is too strong to be shackled by feel-good uplift. She’s ably supported by Hugh Grant as Bayfield, whose motivations are slippery and suspect; he’s a failed artist, too, a third-rate Shakespearean actor who might see Jenkins as a meal ticket—or does he genuinely care for her? Simon Hedberg (of television’s The Big Bang Theory) provides great comic relief as Jenkins’s put-upon pianist, and Christian McKay is perfectly pompous as a New York Post music critic deeply offended by Jenkins’s very existence. Nina Arianda also makes an impression as a mocker-turned-supporter of Jenkins, and Rebecca Ferguson is effective as Bayfield’s mistress. But this is Streep’s show, and she demonstrates once again why she’s as great as she is—while also illustrating how easily it is to take her for granted between movies: she makes great acting look so effortless, so easy. Quite unlike the real Florence Foster Jenkins, who tried her hardest but could only move audiences to tears… of laughter. An unusual character study that combines humor with heartache, Florence Foster Jenkins is a twisted, satiric ode to that most cherished and American of virtues—tenacity.
(Rated PG-13 for suggestive material.)
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