Screened Out – Florence Foster Jenkins

By : Stephen Miller
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Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg

This movie confirms it!

For decades, Florence Foster Jenkins has been a larger-than-life cult figure to a certain group of people. We marveled at how – in 1944, at the turning of WWII – this rich NYC socialite sold out Carnegie Hall and sang a legendary concert of coloratura arias and wildly overdone costuming.

Was she good? Far from it!

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Florence treated pitch as mere suggestion. She’d slide, squawk, and hiccup somewhere just under the note. The pianist basically handed Florence her cues on silver platters, and she still wouldn’t take them.

I’ve said this to friends before while listening to Florence’s rare recordings – her tone is like a chicken laying a square egg. Other times, it sounds as if someone’s using pliers to pick up a cat.

For decades, her few recordings were scooped up and traded for laughs. In the ‘90s, obvious fans wrote a couple plays about Florence. Now, finally, our dear Florence has a full movie and America’s greatest actress committed to her.

You see, Florence wasn’t singing badly as a joke. She literally thought her warbling was good! Of course, this wealthy philanthropist had a husband, an accompanist, and several money-grubbing sycophants telling her she was luminous.

Director Stephen Frears brings his sense of balance to Florence Foster Jenkins.

Director Stephen Frears brings his sense of balance to Florence Foster Jenkins.

Director Stephen Frears orchestrates Foster Jankin’s life beautifully. It’s because he has a gift for bringing older women to screen, as in The Queen and Mrs. Henderson Presents.

So, between Frears and Streep, Florence is actually luminous! Ridiculously costumed and well padded, Florence is totally worthy of Streep’s 20th Oscar nomination. As a result, the actress delivers the heroine with a tricky balance of frailty, bravery, delusion, and deep romance.

“I live for music!” she gushes, and we believe her.

Grant portrays the loving but caddish husband perfectly. And then we watch Helberg (Big Bang Theory) almost mince off the screen as pianist Cosme McMoon – with a name like that, he was destined to be gay.

The real Florence Foster Jenkins has been the stuff of legend, just waiting for a movie about her.

The real Florence Foster Jenkins has been the stuff of legend, just waiting for a movie about her.

Consequently, McMoon shows that Frears can deftly manage comedy (High Fidelity) and tricky moral structures (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, Prick Up Your Ears). So it’s sad that some of Florence Foster Jenkins slides into broad silliness and slapstick. It’s the one repeated, sour note in this charming film. So, yes, “overdone” is a word that easily pops to mind.

Everything else here, though, is rich.

Quite obviously, Frears brings along his Oscar-winning team from The Queen: costumer Consolata Boyle (Iron Lady), production designer Alan MacDonald (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), cinematographer Danny Cohen (Les Misérables, The King’s Speech, The Danish Girl), and composer Alexadre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel).

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

Honestly, the film is best when it takes itself seriously, as our Ms. Foster Jenkins did. The combination of light humor and pathos makes for rare, beautiful moments. So, certain scenes shine – a husband’s complicated love, Florence bonding with a new accompanist, and Mr. McMoon’s growing commitment to Florence.

In these tricky movements, this film hits all the right notes.

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