TCC Films: Florence Foster Jenkins

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Florence Foster Jenkins

I Confess,” the last movie TCC reviewed was drenched in Catholicism. “Florence Foster Jenkins,” directed by Stephen Frears, is a confection that has nothing to do with the Church. That is to say, it has nothing to do with reality. Indeed, it is the story of a woman (Florence Foster Jenkins, played by Meryl Streep) who wishes to live a delusion and the conman companion (St. Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant) who spends his days constructing the stage sets on which her delusion unfolds. Does Florence want to be surrounded by sandwiches and potato salad, always at the ready for one soiree or another? Behold! A bathtub filled with potato salad, beside which St. Clair (pronounced Sinclair) directs the maid to make sure the serving bowls are refilled to the brim.

Go see it.

The movie is based on the true story of the wealthy Jenkins, a lover of music, a supporter of the arts and a woman who believed, against all evidence to the contrary, that she could sing. Not in the shower, mind you, but on the stage of Carnegie Hall, performing such famously difficult arias as Mozart’s “Queen of the Night,” from “The Magic Flute.” Because she had enough money to rent the hall, and because she had Bayfield to encourage her fantasies, Jenkins did indeed perform at Carnegie Hall shortly before her death in 1944.

In less capable hands this movie could be a cruel 110 minutes. But director Frears and his cast have a deft hand with confectionery. Is Bayfield a con artist with a girlfriend on the side? Yes, but he also has genuine affection for Jenkins and a genuine desire to shelter and protect her and make her dreams come true. He lives well on her dime, but he works hard for the money. Is Jenkins deluded? Yes, but she also has a true love of music and spends much of her fortune supporting musicians and their work. It says a lot for their relationship as portrayed by Grant and Streep that their relationship is finally more compelling than that between Bayfield and his much younger, beautiful girlfriend, Kathleen (played by Rebecca Ferguson, in a thankless role.) The movie, and the curious love story of Bayfield and Jenkins, is as  light and delicious as a slice of homemade angel food cake.

Streep is funny in the role of Jenkins, in part because she plays it straight, but the real laughs come from watching her young, and newly hired, accompanist, Cosme McMoon (played by Simon Helberg) try to keep his facial expressions under control as Jenkins reaches for and misses one high note after another. Somehow this deft piece of stagecraft keeps the laughs coming, but deflects them just enough from the talentless Jenkins and onto the very talented McMoon that the whole movie is rescued from ridicule. You’re laughing with McMoon, and at Helberg, but you’re also, along with the pianist, coming to appreciate Jenkins’s grit, if not her voice. As she tells Bayfield, just before dying, “People may say I can’t sing, but nobody can ever say I didn’t sing.”

Here’s another thing to recommend “Florence Foster Jenkins,” and it’s no small thing in the increasingly mean year 2016. There’s no violence in the movie: not a single rape or beating or shooting or stabbing or high speed car chase or explosion or drug overdose or kidnapping. You get to see some very talented actors having fun and inviting you to join them. Do.

(This movie is rated PG-13. It’s suitable for all adults. Parents of teens will have to decide how to handle the brief, and by today’s standards, fairly mild, sex scenes between Bayfield and Katherine, as well as the sharing arrangements the three of them maintain.)