I caught an advance screening of a new film last week. It’s the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice. Jenkins is a classic socialite, and we get the impression that she is very involved as a patron of the arts. We’re told her passion is music, and she’s always wanted to sing opera. She even trains.
She is of course, terrible, but still performs and her husband sets the dates, making sure only the RIGHT people are there, those who will keep the secret and shield her from the fact that she is the worst singer ever.
I’m not sure how to take this. It could have easily been a comedy – but then again, you can only stretch that one gag for so long. The film doesn’t shy away from it, we get the joke in the inspired reactions of Simon Helberg (playing a VERY different character that what we are used to seeing from him in the Big Bang Theory, timid and shocked rather than brash and overreacting) who looks like he’s just happy to be sharing the screen with luminaries such as Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. But make no mistake, this aspires to drama. You can see it reaching for an Oscar award when Florence declares “They can say I can’t sing, but they can’t say that I DIDN’T sing!”
I spent twenty years in the theatre. There’s a certain idealized high society of the 30’s and 40’s that it feels like 90% of all plays are set in. It’s the place we go for Agatha Christie mysteries and social musicals. It’s a comfortable place, that smells of tweed and sealing wax, and this movie brought me right back there instantly. It doesn’t matter that the film is based on actual events, the BBC creates not just that period but the epitome of that period, then improves on it, and Meryl Streep seems to fit perfectly, as if she belonged there.
It’s an undignified role. Something that allows Streep to flex her muscles and show off her range, from being a batty old ditty to moments of quiet introspection. It works. I believe every moment of it.
Hugh Grant doesn’t fare quite as well. He’s still playing the same character type he always has, though he’s trying to play things off a little more straight, he continually falls back into the charmingly befuddled persona he’s become so known for portraying. The problem is, what worked for him at 20, 30, even 40 comes off far less as charming and far more as creepy, possibly lecherous. He looks much older than his 55 years (don’t let the promotional photo fool you, someone has gone nuts with an airbrush on that thing ), and it affects the
performance. Robert Downey Jr. may have been a better choice for the role, while for Grant, it may be time to investigate different types of characters (I’d really like to see him take on Alfred in a Batman movie about ten years down the road).
I watched the crowd as the the theater emptied. It was heavily female in demographic, and I heard a lot of complementary words about the film as they left. As the credits rolled I got a better impression of what I had just seen. This is a date movie for married people. It doesn’t quite reach the “Triumph of the Human Spirit” levels for me but it’s a cut above any Hallmark film out there, and a nice way to spend some time in that forgotten era.