What’s a year of 100 movies without Meryl Streep, right?! Truth be told, though, director Stephen Frears is the main attraction for me, here. That’s not a knock on Meryl Streep. I enjoy her work as much as the next guy. It’s just that Frears’s Philomena was easily one of my favorite films of 2013 (wow, was it really that long ago?) so I was anxious to see what he was bringing to the table with his latest foray into comedy.
Florence Foster Jenkins tells the true story of the eponymous Jenkins (Streep), who has always longed to be a classical vocalist. The problem at hand, however, is that she’s a horrible singer and everyone knows it except for her.
While Frears and his film have the noblest of intentions, the humor consists of a single joke, repeated over and over throughout the course of the film. There’s no subtlety. No subtext. Just one joke, and you better like it because it’s not going anywhere for two hours.
This disappointed me, because I loved the wit and sharpness in Frears’s Philomena. Alas, this is a different, lesser film. Aside from that, the reasoning behind why everyone in Florence’s life enables her delusions is revealed early on. Quite frankly, that reveal should make it difficult for anyone with a half of an ounce of empathy in their body to find anything that follows remotely funny. The entirety of the proceedings quickly become sad and disheartening, stripping the film of any true lightheartedness that seems promised at the outset.
There’s also one scene in particular that stuck out to me in all the wrong ways. Without describing the context, it’s a dream sequence where Jenkins has the beautiful voice she’s always dreamed of having. I can admit that the scene was worked into the film in an effective way, but I also can’t help but wonder if this was a vanity scene for Streep so that the world would know that she can, in reality, sing pretty well and the rest of what we see is just (*wink*) capital-A Acting.
Having gotten through that, the film isn’t without its merits. At its heart lies a thought-provoking question of duality and dichotomy: When is it helpful to enable a loved one and when is it harmful? There is no easy answer to that question, and that allows the characters in Jenkins to attain a level of complexity that greatly benefits the entire project. There are no heroes and there are no villains. There are just people trying to figure their way through a tough situation while protecting the feelings of someone that they love.
Also addressed in serendipitous fashion – if not as extensively as it may be addressed elsewhere – is the divide between audiences and critics. Critics know what they’re talking about, as a whole, and audiences resent them for their honesty and integrity. The critical perspective is briefly touched upon while the overreactions that audiences tend to have towards the critics is addressed in greater depth.
All in all, I found Florence Foster Jenkins to be a largely uncomfortable watch. It feels like the audience is being encouraged to join in on the humiliation of a sweethearted woman who isn’t in on the joke. There are some interesting things going on underneath the surface (except when it comes to the supposedly comedic aspects) but getting to that point is rather painful for anyone who’s able to feel compassion for others. I believe the ultimate message of the film is to do what you love and live life your own way, no matter what anyone else says. That’s a nice sentiment but I wish I could convince myself that a film that spends over 90 minutes mocking someone for doing just that is completely sincere in voicing it.
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