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"FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS"
(2016) (Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A 1940s era tone-deaf patron of the arts tries her hand at singing in public, enabled by her devoted husband, much to the shock and ridicule of most everyone else who hears her perform.
PLOT:
It's the 1940s and Florence Foster Jenkins (MERYL STREEP) is a wealthy if somewhat flighty and oblivious patron of the arts in New York City. She has a devoted husband in St. Clair Bayfield (HUGH GRANT), but doesn't seem to fully realize he has a girlfriend, Kathleen Weatherley (REBECCA FERGUSON), elsewhere in the city where he spends the night after tucking Florence into bed in her mansion. Despite that infidelity, St. Clair will do anything for his wife and that includes supporting her desire to sing in public despite being completely tone deaf and thus a truly awful singer. He's hired acclaimed composer Carlo Edwards (DAVID HAIG) to serve as her singing coach, but her newly hired pianist, the young and talented Cosme McMoon (SIMON HELBERG), is shocked to hear how bad she is.

St. Clair's goal is to limit the audience who might see and hear Florence perform to forgiving friends and fellow older socialites, and thus bristles when a rich man's brash new and much younger wife, Agnes Stark (NINA ARIANDA), laughs hysterically upon hearing Florence sing. Quickly removing her from the scene, St. Clair continues with his plan, all as Cosme continues as her befuddled pianist. But when Florence manages to get her newest recording played on the radio and it becomes an unlikely hit among U.S. servicemen -- although not for the right reason -- St. Clair must do what he can to protect his eager to perform wife from professional and amateur critics.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
What would you think if I sang out of tune
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song
And I'll try not to sing out of key
Oh I get by with a little help from my friends

"With a Little Help from My Friends" The Beatles

In the world of entertainment, there have always been and likely always will be enablers. I know a former movie publicist who lamented a weekend he had to spend with an A-list comedian and movie star whose entourage literally laughed aloud at anything he said, regardless of whether it was intended to be funny or not. To him, it was a maddening but also sad experience. Other stars have "yes men" whose job is to agree with any idea -- good, bad or indifferent -- the performer might have, all of which usually results in bad choices and decisions as no one wants to say "no."

Of course, while it's easy to peg bad acting or joke telling, it's infinitely easier to note awful singing. I'm not talking about those who can carry a tune but try too hard and thus sound like they're performing in a way-off-Broadway musical. I'm talking the kind where dogs howl, birds take flight and people make the sort of universal cringe expressions that everyone instantly recognizes. You know, sort of like when fingernails travel across chalkboards.

Aside from the popularity of bad singers on the now-retired "American Idol" or "The Gong Show" long before it, it's unusual to come across such people as they usually realize their limitations and limit their warbling to the "acoustically perfect" shower stall at home. But there are those who are literally tone deaf and simply can't recognize the pain and horror they're inflicting on others.

One such person apparently was Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite and patron of the arts. A former child prodigy pianist whose later career in that field was cut short due to an arm injury, she inherited money upon her father's passing and became an amateur operatic soprano who even opened her own venue, The Verdi Club. The only problem was that she lacked just about every quality needed to be even just a decent singer, but was enabled by her supportive second husband, close friends and those in her inner social circle.

Her rather remarkable story now comes to the screen in the aptly named "Florence Foster Jenkins" where Meryl Streep plays that title character, Hugh Grant embodies her enabler husband, and Simon Helberg gets the funny supporting character role as her young pianist who can't believe his ears or the conflicting fortune of making a good living accompanying her performances while simultaneously worrying how much her dreadful singing might actually hurt his future career after her.

I have no idea how much of the film is accurate outside of the bad singing bit, but director Stephen Frears ("Philomena," "The Queen") -- working from a script by Nicholas Martin -- has delivered an entertaining period dramedy. In most any other case, I'd say he gets a good performance out of his lead, but considering that's 19-time Oscar nominee Streep, he likely just had to sit back and watch the actress do her thing.

Beyond creating another memorable character, the actress had the daunting task of portraying a woman with a horrible singing voice. And I say daunting because Streep has proven she can sing and thus doing so in such an off-key, tone-deaf manner is quite the accomplishment, albeit likely not too arduous for a thespian of her talent and range.

Grant is quite good as the protagonist's devoted husband who caters to her ever need and whim -- including doing his best to insulate her from any amateur or critical disdain -- all while having a girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson) with whom he spends every night elsewhere after tucking the missus into bed at her home.

The scene-stealer, however, is Helberg as the young pianist whose looks of pained befuddlement are worth the price of admission alone. Nina Arianda also gets some decent mileage playing a crass, Bronx-ish, trophy wife who clashes with the snooty society she's married into.

Unlike most movies about singers where part of the fun is hearing the performer do their thing, you won't want to see this for the singing. Instead, it's the performances, script and Frears' direction that makes this an enjoyable diversion. While it likely won't make bad singing popular again like William Hung did in his 15 minutes of "American Idol" fame, "Florence Foster Jenkins" is good enough to rate as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed July 14, 2016 / Posted August 12, 2016


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