(LOS ANGELES) — How did we all go this long without knowing that one of the single greatest joys in life is watching Meryl Streep sing terribly? Sure, she’s a fantastic actress with a boatload of Oscars and nominations to prove it, but secretly her greatest talent this whole time has apparently been the ability to sing notes more badly than anyone’s ever done before.
This magic is finally revealed in the film Florence Foster Jenkins, the real-life story of a woman famous for being a terrible singer.
Jenkins was a high society patron of the arts in 1940s New York when she decided to hold a concert and sing for the masses at Carnegie Hall. And why not? She thought she had a great voice, because she was surrounded by sycophants who either didn’t want to hurt her feelings, or who wanted her money. The movie hilariously and heartbreakingly explores the world of this woman who has no idea how bad she is, and the people keeping her in the dark.
One of the biggest offenders in that regard is her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant. Their relationship is, um, unique, and Grant brings a nice tenderness to the portrayal of the protective partner. You keep waiting for him to fall into the clichéd role of gold-digger, but thanks to mix of smart writing and fine acting, Bayfield transcends our one-dimensional expectations.
And speaking of expectations, The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg does a fantastic job of making us forget he’s been playing the smart and surly Howard Wolowitz for nine seasons. He turns in a quirky and nuanced performance here as Cosme McMoon, the nervous pianist picked to play by Jenkins’ side.
But as good as Grant and Helberg are, they’re just sidemen for another star turn from Meryl Streep. In the title role, she’s fantastic: a commanding presence playing a complex woman who’s at once confident and naïve, insecure yet always the center of attention. The terrible singing is funny at first, but the joke would get old without Streep’s depth. She brings tremendous sympathy and empathy to a role that in less capable hands would easily be a one-note caricature.
A lot of credit should go to director Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) and writer Nicholas Martin for doing a nice job setting the right tone. Florence Foster Jenkins is an absurd comedy for the most part, which is fitting for a true story that’s rather absurd. But it always feels grounded and real. In the wrong hands, it’s easy to see how the film could have become a much more tragic drama, which wouldn’t have worked — this story isn’t one of the most important of our time, in need of deep reflection. Honestly, given how hard it is to get a movie made, it’s a little surprising that this particular true story, of all the true stories out there, would make it to the big screen with such a fine cast and crew. But it did, and everyone involved is firing on all cylinders.
And some of the questions Florence Foster Jenkins explores are ones you’ll likely be discussing at dinner afterward. How far should one go to protect the feelings of someone they love? Is it ultimately more destructive to delude someone into a false sense of grandeur rather than be honest with them about their abilities? And just because we want something and have the means to achieve it, does that really mean we deserve it? Heavy questions for an absurd comedy, and this film is deftly able to pose them without getting weighed down by them.
Do you need to see Florence Foster Jenkins in the theater? Probably not. The big-screen experience doesn’t add much to the film, besides perhaps allowing us to more loudly hear Meryl Streep sing poorly. But it is a nice change of pace from the loud, bad blockbusters we’ve been pummeled with all summer. After a couple of months of eating fast food, Florence Foster Jenkins is the beautifully prepared meal at a fancy restaurant we all need right now.
Four-and-a-half out of five stars.
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