Skip to main content

She is the worst goddamn singer in the whole world!

Florence Foster Jenkins
(2016)

(SPOILERS) A clueless old luvvie beset by dodgy vocal chords holds forth before a rapt peer group, little aware of how foolish she sounds. But enough about Meryl’s Golden Globes performance. Florence Foster Jenkins is good period fun, with a splash of pathos, in the serviceable manner that British heritage pictures tend to deliver so well. Stephen Frears, a genre-versatile director with a number of very good pictures on his CV has made an easily digestible piece of fluff that seems built for Oscars and Streep’s annual nomination assault. It would be mean-minded to find significant fault with what’s on offer, but it’s worth noting that the darling of the awards circuit’s performance is not one the best herein.


Indeed, there’s a whiff of déjà vu about her mannered delivery. Not exactly in a bad way, as she’s become quite adept at comedy since the late ‘80s, at which point she couldn’t get arrested (remember She Devil?) But if what we’re getting is a ham playing a ham, the problem is that the ham in question is acting royalty; Meryl could never be a truly great ham, the sort who can go off the deep end and turn ham into something to be relished. She’s much too controlled, measured and faux-humble for that.


So it’s Hugh Grant, as St Clair Bayfield, husband and manager of Florence’s New York heiress, and Simon Helberg, as her pianist Cosmé McMoon, who deserve the lion’s share of the plaudits. One might argue Grant is the ultimate actor for déjà vu, always giving the same performance, often in what appears to be the same film (certainly in the same role). But there’s a reason (apart from the way in which he actually doesn’t think he’s much cop, not faux-humbly so) Grant is so selective with his material; he rightly knows he’s best suited to certain sorts of roles, and while they’re very different kettles of acting fish, he has as keen a sense of this as his surname’s sake Cary did.


You need someone charming and likeable to play a character who is essentially a philanderer and questionable in terms of the extent to which he’s a gold-digger using his relationship to facilitate a particular lifestyle, career and social whirl. Grant embodies this side of St Clair but also a genuine devotion to Florence, and we don’t doubt that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s also easy to forget just what masterful, natural comic timing Grant has; when he’s in a scene with Streep, it’s difficult not to see her overplaying her way through the role while all Hugh needs is the odd inflection or gesture.


I’m not a big fan of The Big Bang Theory – it’s passable and inoffensive it happens to be on and I happen not to have the energy to lift the remote – but my appreciation of Helberg’s abilities has gone up hugely on seeing him here. There’s something slightly Alan Cumming-esque about his flighty, slightly shrill performance, but while it’s ostensibly played for laughs, he knows exactly when to switch into sincere and empathic. At first we consider Cosmé superior and a bit snotty, but despite his concerns over career suicide by association with Florence (the financial temptation can only be so much of a carrot), he too develops great affection for the “singer”, whom he found almost impossible to restrain his mirth at on first recital.


Helberg and Grant bounce off each other very well too, as Cosmé becomes privy to St Clair’s peccadillos, with the latter making him the fall guy when Florence witnesses the aftermath of a rowdy party (“When I said help yourself to a nightcap, I meant just one! Look what he’s done!”) It isn’t only Cosmé’s reaction to Florence that elicits laughs; Frears knows well the infectious nature of uncontrolled hilarity, such that when David Mills’ socialite pal of Rebecca Ferguson (as Kathleen, St Clair’s girlfriend) witnesses Florence for the first time his attempts to restrain himself are a hoot, only topped by Nina Arianda’s Agnes Stark, eventually led from the concert on all fours, wracked by uncontrollable hysterics.


Agnes’ subsequent turnabout at the Carnegie Hall gig, then, as Florence is assailed by uncouth armed forces hecklers, is just the kind of move the picture could have done without, offering a treacly celebration of how Florence’s sheer, undaunted, oblivous bravery and purity of spirit affects all she comes into contact with.


As to how aware the actual Florence was of the less-than-genuine appreciation of her admirers, the verdict appears to be mixed. She had been singing for years prior to the compressed events depicted in the picture, so some say there’s no way she wasn’t, and didn’t to some extent thrive on it. On the other hand, the response to the Carnegie Hall concert is said to have deeply hurt her (although she suffered a heart attack shopping five days later, rather than retiring to her death bed as depicted here). Likeable as it is, Florence Foster Jenkins is little more than the latest in a line of serviceable, fast-food period pictures; after the heat dies down from its various nominations, you’ll soon forget it existed.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass thing!

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) (SPOILERS) Warner Bros has been here before. Déjà vu? What happens when you let a filmmaker do whatever they want? And I don’t mean in the manner of Netflix. No, in the sequel sense. You get a Gremlins 2: The New Batch (a classic, obviously, but not one that financially furthered a franchise). And conversely, when you simply cash in on a brand, consequences be damned? Exorcist II: The Heretic speaks for itself. So in the case of The Matrix Resurrections – not far from as meta as The New Batch , but much less irreverent – when Thomas “Tom” Anderson, designer of globally successful gaming trilogy The Matrix , is told “ Our beloved company, Warner Bros, has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy ” and it’s going ahead “with or without us”, you can be fairly sure this is the gospel. That Lana, now going it alone, decided it was better to “make the best of it” than let her baby be sullied. Of course, quite what that amounts to in the case of a movie(s) tha

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

It’s always possible to find a good moral reason for killing anybody.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) (SPOILERS) The Assassination Bureau ought to be a great movie. You can see its influence on those who either think it is a great movie, or want to produce something that fulfils its potential. Alan Moore and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen . The just-released (and just-flopped) The King’s Men . It inhabits a post-Avengers, self-consciously benign rehearsal of, and ambivalence towards, Empire manners and attitudes, something that could previously be seen that decade in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (and sequel Monte Carlo or Bust , also 1969), Adam Adamant Lives! , and even earlier with Kind Hearts and Coronets , whilst also feeding into that “Peacock Revolution” of Edwardian/Victorian fashion refurbishment. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the pop-stylistic savvy that made, say, The President’s Analyst so vivacious.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.