The story of the performer who has no talent but whose heart is in the game clearly isn’t a new one. In recent years, “artists” like William Hung have become cult successes, celebrated despite their complete lack of ability because they were so earnest in their performances.
The internet of course has made it easier than ever to discover and embrace the “lovable loser,” from the Star Wars Kid to the Grape Lady. Born in 1868, Florence Foster Jenkins didn’t have Tosh.0 to propel her to success, but she did have money. An heiress and socialite, Foster Jenkins was a patron to the performing arts, and she somewhat fancifully fashioned herself among their members.
As assayed by Meryl Streep, Foster Jenkins is quickly revealed to be a nearly tone-deaf chanteuse whose inability to sing is rivaled only by her nonexistent fashion sense. A widow (and, it is revealed, an impossibly longtime sufferer of a surprising disease), she is remarried to the younger but doting St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), although it is soon made clear that theirs is a marriage of a certain convenience. Bayfield provides emotional support for Florence while managing the complex machinations required to ensure her public performances are attended only by “true music lovers” (i.e. hard-of-hearing dowagers and attendees who’ve been paid outright to applaud). Foster Jenkins, of course, provides the money to make all of this happen (knowingly or not), including funding a separate life for her husband, complete with young girlfriend and ample amounts of Dewar’s. The degree to which Florence truly understands the complexities in this arrangement is one of the movie’s more interesting nibbles of food for thought.
As for the rest of it, well, that’s a story as old as time. Or rather, it’s at least as old as Citizen Kane, which featured a lengthy plotline about Charles Foster Kane’s bankrolling of his wife Susan’s hapless attempts to become an opera singer. Kane’s response at her coming out performance remains a popular meme today, 75 years later.
Florence Foster Jenkins, the movie, is of course no Citizen Kane, and it offers a plot that is nearly as lazy as its title. Foster Jenkins has no talent, but can she nonetheless have a musical career that’s built solely upon well-greased wheels? While Streep throws herself into the role, complete with myriad screeching performances, what ultimately becomes more fun is watching Grant’s Bayfield jump through increasingly convoluted hoops in order to ensure all of this goes off without a hitch, including paying off the press and sourcing aides with the correct temperament. The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Hedberg, as Cosme McMoon, who is hired as Foster Jenkins’ pianist, manages to run away with much of the show during these sequences.
The film’s final act of course finds Florence becoming a New York sensation, recording a record intended as a gift for friends that subsequently ends up on the radio. The unintended comedy of the performance makes her an overnight sensation, and soon she is booked to play Carnegie Hall, with relatively expected results.
Florence Foster Jenkins is a film with a lot of heart, just like Florence herself, but few surprises to sustain its running time. The story feels like it could have filled a stellar 30 minutes, but Streep’s wild warbling, however so-bad-it’s-good it might be, just can’t carry the next hour and change. That said, both she and Grant are amazing both when they’re apart and together, their earnest portrayals really lending gravitas to people who would otherwise be remembered as a joke.
Should society recognize artists who have passion, but who don’t have talent? Come awards season time, when Streep and Grant are likely to be honored, we’ll have to grapple with a tougher question: How do we reward a movie that is filled with talent, but which is about someone without any?