Perhaps not every quirky true story needs a biopic starring Meryl Streep, as evidenced by Stephen Frears’ bizarre “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the story of a wealthy older woman who launched an amateur singing career in the 1940s despite her distinct lack of talent. It’s a film that dares you to give it a bad review, simply so it can turn around and call you a bully who picks on the people who try. It invites you to giggle at Florence’s horrible singing and then promptly scolds you for laughing, creating a contradiction that goes unreconciled — to laugh or not to laugh at Florence’s tortured caterwauling?
Frears attempts to answer this question with the actor Simon Helberg, who plays Jenkins’ sweet-natured accompanist Cosme McMoon. Streep takes to the ear-splitting warbling of the role with gusto, and Helberg performs Olympic-level facial calisthenics in stifling his giggles at Florence’s singing. His reactions are a large part of both the humor and the moral conundrum into which “Florence Foster Jenkins” twists itself. It’s OK to laugh at her, because she’s terrible, but not in a “mean” way, OK?
The other man in Florence’s life is St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), her manager/fake husband (he has his own place, a girlfriend and an “understanding” with Florence). He uses a mixture of bribery and blackmail to stage Florence’s private concerts, slipping $20 bills into the invitations and keeping real music critics off the list. He also keeps the sandwiches and potato salad flowing (there are bathtubs of the stuff), yet another one of Florence’s strange obsessions.
His combination of enabling, indulging and protecting her is entirely infantilizing, and you wonder for half the movie if Florence has dementia because everyone treats her as such. Nope, it’s just syphilis, contracted from ex-husband Mr. Jenkins, and the ensuing treatments of mercury and arsenic. Florence does have her wits about her, which is why it’s off-putting that everyone around her behaves as if she doesn’t.
Bayfield spits with anger about the “mockers and scoffers” who show up to Florence’s concerts and the servicemen who request her record on the radio, enjoying a good laugh during their leave. But the only honest people in the film are the mockers and scoffers; everyone else is twisting themselves into rhetorical knots in service of her delusions of talent.
Frears is taking direct aim at critics, and at those who enjoy art ironically. He and writer Nicholas Martin make the argument that consuming art sarcastically is morally wrong, that bad reviews can be fatal, and that everyone who puts themselves out there deserves a participation trophy and a standing ovation. This medicine would be easier to swallow if the film didn’t ask us to laugh at her in the first place.
We’re to take inspiration from the fact that Florence loved music so much that she didn’t let a lack of talent stop her enjoyment. Her motto, “people can say I couldn’t sing, but but no one can say I didn’t sing,” is a chin up to the triers to put yourself out there and do what you love, mockers and scoffers and haters be darned.
Well, another wise woman, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, once had embroidered on a pillow, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me,” and we know what side we’re on.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘Florence Foster Jenkins’
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief suggestive material
In general release
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