Meryl Streep (“Doubt”) is so bad she’s good — or maybe it’s the other way around — as the titular character in “Florence Foster Jenkins.” But that’s precisely the point. Jenkins was a Manhattan socialite who, in her old age in 1944, continued to be endlessly fascinated by music despite lacking a lick of talent. She tried to sing opera and, well, failed. Spectacularly. Jenkins was famous for being reputedly the worst opera singer ever, a sort of cult figure on par with Ed Wood or, more recently, Tommy Wiseau.
But she experiences no embarrassment because she, evidently, doesn’t realize how terribly putrid her vocal talent is. Jenkins keeps singing, hiring an accompanist piano player, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg, “The Big Bang Theory”). Helberg plays McMoon with a terrifically sheepish demeanor, transforming a simple side character into a nervous mess who relies on his blooming relationship with Jenkins to instill some semblance of self-assuredness.
St. Clair Bayfield, Jenkins’s common-law husband, is played with deft grace and dignity by a notably aged-looking Hugh Grant (“About a Boy”). Aside from organizing much of her social life, Bayfield serves as Jenkins’s spin doctor and reputation controller, bribing audience members at her shows into reserving laughter and, if applicable, penning positive reviews in the local newspapers. Bayfield may represent the trials and tribulations that accompany a cult of personality — the careful cultivation of illusions surrounding a deluded individual. Bayfield discards bad reviews, if not outright preventing them, by dictating them himself, bribes audience members to her shows and away from laughter, and carefully preserves Jenkins’s voice from public eyes, or ears.
Stephen Frears, the legendary British director who has been churning out hits since the mid-1980s, marks his return with “Jenkins,” which is ultimately a delightful comedy that completes something of a trilogy of elderly women whose lives take sudden turns. In “The Queen,” Helen Mirren starred as the current Queen of England, Elizabeth II, responding to the death of Princess Diana. 2013’s “Philomena,” a drastically under-seen Oscar contender that year, follows Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who tries to discover the fate of her son who was forcibly taken from her by “evil nuns” (to quote her companion, British journalist Martin Sixsmith) when she was a teenager. This time around, Frears turns his attention to wartime America.
Frears’s 1944 America is stuffed with the art deco imagery of luxury and grandeur, an apt support for Jenkins’s delusions of the type. Jenkins expresses concern for “our boys fighting abroad,” but she clearly didn’t see the propaganda warning against excessive consumption. Jenkins is only concerned with music itself. At the sound of a calming melody, her eyes glint with a giddy glee and a sort of lust for the talent of musicians consumes her. Perhaps that’s what’s so jarring about her voice; for someone with a clear appreciation for the works of the greats, she can’t figure out that she’s not one of them, no matter how hard she tries (“An hour a day!”).
“Jenkins” is a moving tribute to the rest of us: those who love music but can’t produce it without personally insulting the ears of anyone who dares give a listen. It’s not particularly optimistic — Streep’s singing quite bad, and those peculiar sounds and the straining reactions that follow are the source of much of the film’s humor — but it’s personal.
Before the film began, a trailer for Clint Eastwood’s upcoming film “Sully” played. The film is about the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, who landed a plane in the Hudson River a few years ago. That’s the extent of his fame. When I heard a director as legendary as Eastwood was devoting his time to a biopic of someone with a story this short, I had a planeload of reservations. But the trailer washed much of those fears away and I realized that there was, perhaps, much more to the story. Frears accomplishes as much in “Jenkins.” How can a one-note (or, more accurately, many bad notes) story be transformed into a two-hour long tale? With stakes? Apparently, it’s easier than I suspected. When you have actors as masterful as Streep, Grant, Helbig and a scene-stealing Nina Arianda (“Win Win”), anything’s possible. Except, of course, hitting the right notes.