Saturday 21 May 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) - Movie Review

Earlier this month, I went to an interactive screening of The Room at one of my locals. Again. I lost count a while ago, but I’ve definitely reached double digits in how many times I’ve done this already. Under normal circumstances, I don’t go and see movies at the cinema more than once; the only time I can remember doing it was with Spy Kids 3, and that was ultimately because I missed the first few minutes the first time round. I also don’t usually advocate for repeatedly giving money to what is undoubtedly a very, very bad filmmaker, especially not to this degree. However, this is why I have always shown leniency towards films that can be enjoyed by less than legitimate means, and The Room in particular because these are less screenings and more a form of communion. A mass of people getting together that all have the same approach to movie-going as I do is a rarity in today’s day and age, and it is kind of comforting to be able to connect with that many people about something. I bring all this up because the idea of ironic entertainment is hardly a new concept and has been around for a long time, with today’s film highlighting one of the earliest examples of it. I’m coming into this with a certain understanding of the phenomenon that would normally have me on some mental ward waiting list, but I wouldn’t have it any other way honestly. So, with all that said, let’s get started with today’s film.

The plot: Florence (Meryl Streep) is a New York aristocrat with a passion for performing, particularly when it comes to music. The only problem is that she cannot sing a note. Not that this holds her back, as her husband St. Clair (Hugh Grant) and accompanying pianist Cosmé (Simon Helberg) both work to fulfill her wishes. However, once her performances start to gain speed in the New York music scene and the audiences start coming in, it seems that the people can’t get enough of her. Florence’s dream is about to become a reality, but whether her ailing body will be able to survive the process is another matter altogether.

Meryl Streep is playing a woman who cannot sing. I highlight this fact because I suspect oh so many jokes at her expense concerning her own natural singing voice, at least what the public has seen on film. Not here, though. Sure, Mamma Mia still stains my eardrums, but then again barely anyone sounded good in that manticore of bad ideas. Outside of that, I’ve seen her in Into The Woods and Ricki And The Flash, and while their respective qualities as films dipped in places, I can’t say that Streep’s singing was one of them. This isn’t much of a change from that, as not only does she pull off the cringe-inducingly off singing but also a bit of more traditionally good singing near the end. Beyond singing, you really get the feeling that this is a person who loved music with every fibre of her being, despite how much she was unable to conform to it.

Opposite her is Grant, and after The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I am legitimately floored by how insanely good he is here. While his character is a tad murky in terms of sincerity, not a rarity with this film, he feel every beat he delivers with a resonating hit to the chest. Helberg is the embodiment of nervous energy here, giving the most rubber-faced performance since the days of Donald O’Connor. John Sessions has a good one-scene role as Florence’s doctor, David Haig performs magic as her vocal tutor, and Nina Arianda as a rather rowdy concert-goer pretty much personifies every reaction possible to such a spectacle, making for a character arc that is relatable in a way I was not expecting to see this year. Or ever, really.

I think I made a slight mistake when looking at The Program last year, in that I attributed that film’s even-handedness with its subject matter solely to that film’s writer. I say that because, despite a freshly-minted writer in the world of feature-length cinema, this shares that film’s aversion to taking any real sides. Sure, we’re definitely meant to sympathise with Florence and even more so with St. Clair in his attempts to please her, but nothing feels like it’s being shied away from in the film’s depiction of these characters. We very clearly hear Florence’s lack of singing ability, but also see her intense passion for music and how much it seems to bring her to life whenever someone playing the piano. We see St. Clair’s infidelities and how it muddles his relationship with Florence, but also the true feelings that he has for her in spite of everything that happens. We see Cosmé’s naiveté-induced mockery of Florence and her ‘talent’, but also how much he gets swept up in it all until he can’t help but be joyous at how far he and Florence manage to get with their act. It may sway more in favour of these characters, but it ultimately ends up presenting them for good or for ill and lets the audience come to their own conclusions.

This film is a complete farce, and I mean that in the best way possible. Hell, I’m shocked that something this mainstream is able to convey cringe comedy in such a digestible way; no doubt, I’ll end up pointing to this if I get asked to explain why cringe comedy is any good. No, I mean that this is a farce in much the same way that The Dressmaker was a farce: It’s screwball antics all the way, only here the dramatic beats actually work. Florence’s blissful ignorance of her own skills already sets up some good groundwork for some zaniness, and St. Clair’s British snark-tinged stoicism only builds it up further. This is where Helberg’s talent with facial expressions seriously comes in handy, as he easily provides some of the funniest reactions possible for any given situation.

Not that this is the pratfall kind of silliness largely on display though; this is more the Fawlty Towers sharp wit brand. With nearly every person’s dialogue except for Florence, there is this very deliberate double-sided nature to their words. It’s almost like this entire film could have been shot like the phone call scene from Casino and had what they were actually saying in subtitle below at times. But then that would be implying that Stephen Frears thinks its audience is stupid and, once again, credit where it’s due in that he treats the filmgoers with enough forethought to not just spell everything out for us.

I started this review talking about The Room, and this film’s approach to depicting the minds behind the enjoyably bad is what I sincerely hope reflecting that of the film adaptation of The Disaster Artist because this is a great portrayal of the subject matter. While I admit that I would honestly prefer if they took a little more time out for the reactions of the audience to her singing, both sides of the stage get their fair representation. For the performers and management and so forth, we see that this is all done with a certain number of blinders on. This is probably true for a lot of creative minds out there with sub-par output, but Florence seems to be surrounded by a bunch of yes men. I’m not holding this as a negative towards the film itself, it’s just an observation of the circumstances of the plot.

However, even without the mild deception involved with this whole endeavour, there is a definite place of earnestness in what goes on. Whether it’s Florence’s determination, St. Clair’s love or even Cosmé’s artistic impulsivity, there is genuine drive behind getting Florence to be heard. As for the audience, we see a good mix of the reactions to such an act: The innocent bystanders who are aghast at the spectacle, the good sports who are willing to play along as part of the gag, and the spiteful bastards who just hoard hate like they’re expecting a shortage. Even today, this is still pretty damn accurate. Probably one of the more weighted perspectives we see in the film is that of how these audiences should be: Yeah, they might not get into the spirit of things as others do, but spitting in the face of the artist in question is hardly the most humane thing you can do. Enjoy, or don’t enjoy, the work however you wish; just don’t make it personal. There’s a reason why I didn’t ultimately tell the directors of The Quarantine Hauntings what I thought to their faces, after all.

All in all, even with how cynical this film gets in how the characters keep trying to protect Florence’s worldview, this is an insanely emotional watch. The acting is top-notch, managing to make me completely forget that one of the cast members is a regular on The Big Bang Theory (that is no easy feat, I assure you), the music is well-utilised and the good and the bad are portrayed with even zeal, and the writing is astoundingly clever in that very British way with how razor-tipped a lot of the dialogue is. This isn’t the only film based on the story of Florence Foster Jenkins to be released this year, so no doubt I’ll be returning to this at some point before the end of the year, but as it stands on its own, this is a remarkably potent bit of screwball drama.

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