Thursday, September 08, 2016

OVP: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

Film: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda
Director: Stephen Frears
Oscar History: 2 nominations (Best Actress-Meryl Streep, Costume Design)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Meryl Streep is a joy to watch, always, but I will admit that in the past ten years or so, I haven't been in love with her present incarnation like I was with a past version.  I can't quite put my finger on what it is, but with the exception of Julie & Julia, she hasn't really floored me since The Devil Wears Prada.  Don't get me wrong-she's had some fine work in that time.  There are moments in pictures like The Iron Lady, August Osage County, and Hope Springs where she finds something special, that Meryl Streep mastery that we all loved.  But it does feel like, on occasion, she's using her reputation as one of the greatest actors of her generation a little bit to her advantage.  I do wish that while watching something like Florence Foster Jenkins, another entry in Meryl's "very good, but the movie isn't great" type films, that we'd get one more truly "WOW!" performance out of Streep ala Silkwood or Kramer vs. Kramer.  But that's a diatribe for a different day.  First, let's investigate Florence.

(Spoilers Ahead) I was largely unfamiliar with the story of Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep), a wealthy heiress who had dreams of becoming a great opera singer even though she was, unfortunately, a horrendously bad singer.  The film follows her in the twilight of her life, when she decides she wants to play Carnegie Hall and doesn't let a lack of talent get in her way.  The film also follows her caddish husband St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), who is deeply devoted to her but also frequently in the arms of his lover Kathleen (Ferguson), as he bribes everyone in town to keep up the delusion that Florence is talented.  Joined by an aspiring pianist Cosmo (Helberg), Florence eventually overcomes the odds and develops a group of wildly devoted (though ironic) fans.

The film had a weird effect on me.  I was having a particularly awful day that day, so I don't know how much this had to do with that, but the emotional climax (the scene where Florence finally gets her moment in Carnegie Hall), is riveting and may be playing you for a cheaper emotional payoff, but it works.  I was balling hysterically throughout the entire number, particularly when people decided it was time this woman, after giving so much back to the world with them frequently stealing away from her generosity, got to have her moment in the sun.  Streep, who is still a master technician as an actress, knows how to play this scene to perfection, and is once again the highlight of the film.

I guess my problem here is that the film feels so done.  The trailers give away the bulk of the film, and while it is occasionally lovely (there's nothing wrong with the movie as a whole), it feels like the sorts of films that Helen Mirren knocks out of the park already.  I didn't think this was a very special endeavor.  Perhaps this is because feel-good biopics aren't my cup-of-tea regardless of whom you put in the lead, but I wanted something more.  Meryl Streep joining with Stephen Frears, the first time she's been joined by a truly accomplished director since Robert Altman in 2006, felt like I might get something more sensational.  Instead, we got some of Frears' fluffy fare, and none of the payoff that came with Helen Mirren finally getting an Oscar herself.

The film also has some problems in terms of the side characters.  I wasn't smitten with Hugh Grant, again playing a rake, as it's deeply hard to figure out his motives and considering we see him in too many quiet moments to really leave with no sense of his character, that's the fault of the actor and writer.  Throughout, I could tell he loved Florence but couldn't tell if he only stayed for the money, or quite frankly why he had loved Florence.  Was it the case of a gold-digger who actually fell for his paramour, even if it wasn't romantic?  It's hard to say, but I should know after 100 or so minutes.

The same has to be said for Simon Helberg's Cosmo, another case of a character who felt "gay-washed" in his own picture.  Cosmo is clearly assumed to be homosexual-he eye-lusts after a man at a party and frequently works out, but we don't actually get anything more from that, which made me a little angry-why put it in if you aren't going to try and show a little something more in that scene?  It felt tagged on just to give a wink, but not enough to actually feel progressive.  It'd be nothing if this wasn't the case for dozens of movies with similar problems, so I feel like I have to call it out.

All-in-all, then, I liked, but didn't remotely love Florence Foster Jenkins, and left it growing impatient for Streep to wow us once again.  She still has a platform and can stack up the nominations-what's it going to take for her to bring another Karen Silkwood or Miranda Priestley into the world?

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