After Kelly Clarkson, William Hung was the most memorable American Idol contestant. He didn't get in the competition, but that didn't matter. He started a trend. But where Idol found a mean-spirited laugh, Florence Foster Jenkins finds courage.
Director Stephen Frears' 1940s dramedy opens with St. Clair (Hugh Grant) performing a monologue from Hamlet at the Verdi Club in New York City. He isn't particularly good, but he charms the elderly, well-heeled crowd nonetheless. Shortly thereafter, his wife, the titular socialite (Meryl Streep), is lowered onto the stage as a band plays. She does not sing, and it's not long before we find out why.
There is singing flat. There is off-key caterwauling. Then, there is Mrs. Jenkins' operatic singing. Search YouTube for recordings of her real-life singing, as words will never do it justice. In the film, Streep has a great deal of fun as she tries to hit the sharp high notes of the "Queen of the Night" aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute. The pianist Cosme (Simon Helberg) hired to accompany her is less excited. Her singing instructor is paid handsomely, more to encourage her than to actually instruct her, and the loving St. Clair pays off attendees and hides reviews to shield her from the truth.
Making fun of terrible singing is cheap and easy, but Florence Foster Jenkins avoids cheap shots after the first practice session. In between performances, we see St. Clair removing her hairpiece and lovingly tucking his frail, syphilitic wife in at night before sneaking out to meet with his mistress. She is not long for this world and wants to share what she loves with the public. And it feels genuine—the joy, mockery, pain and sadness.
Florence Foster Jenkins is a fun period piece. If you ever wanted to see 50-something Hugh Grant swing dance in a double-breasted suit, you'll find that here. Or two men running through hotels and city streets to buy every copy of the New York Post, that's here too. If you ever wanted to see Meryl Streep have the time of her life, Florence Foster Jenkins delivers. But at its heart, it is a film about the lengths we go to protect the ones we love. Jenkins was an unquestionably terrible singer, but that does not mean we shouldn't listen to her sing.
Critic's Grade: [B]
SEE IT: Florence Foster Jenkins is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport.