In director Stephen Frear’s new film, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” Meryl Streep plays the world’s worst singer.
That’s the hook of the movie, the gag de jour, if you will — and it works.
Streep warbles away with the conviction and confidence of a woman singing from the shower of her empty farmhouse, on a 300-acre ranch, in the outer reaches of the Montana wilderness.
The fact that “Florence Foster Jenkins” is in actuality set in the claustrophobic confines of 1940s New York City should tell you a little something about the thickness of the bubble protecting its tone deaf protagonist.
As Florence, Streep hits each wrong note with enough sincerity to almost anesthetize the audience against the blunt force of effort applied straight upside the head without the panacea of talent.
The first time we hear that sound, Frears stages the scene like a traditional comedy. Reaction shots — straight-faced support from Hugh Grant’s devoted husband and a tentative bewilderment that belonged to Simon Helberg’s newbie piano player — are used to sell the laughs.
In many respects it’s a tableau that could have been ripped straight from one of the earlier seasons of “American Idol,” a Fox series that by and large got by on the perverse thrill that the folks at home got from watching people live out their delusions on national television.
Frears, on the other hand, is never content to let Florence remain the butt of the joke — or the fish caught on the hook of her own movie.
He takes pains to remind the audience more than once this is a woman who loves music — that music does not feel the same way about her hardly seems like Florence’s fault.
If she were Rocky Balboa she could chase chickens or make daily jaunts up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, but this is an underdog story where a big heart never quite manages to overcome an almost tragic lack of natural born skill.
That Florence doesn’t become an object of pity is largely thanks to the script, which smartly positions the aspiring singer through the eyes of her devoted husband, a mediocre actor who long ago resigned himself to a supporting role in a way his wife simply cannot.
Grant, charming and warm, never makes you doubt the benign intentions behind his day job as Florence’s great enabler, even while his off-hours complicate an otherwise peaceful relationship.
That’s fine, though. In art, as in life, it’s the imperfections that make it interesting.
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