The idea that certain movies are made just to be Oscar fodder has become a punchline, parodied in movies like Tropic Thunder and In & Out. Unfortunately, it’s an idea that has some truth to it. There certainly are movies that feel like they were made specifically to garner awards, and they usually have some success, at least in getting nominations. Florence Foster Jenkins feels exactly like that type of movie: a biopic of a lesser-known figure made to showcase Meryl Streep’s acting abilities and earn nominations. As an awards attractor, the movie has accomplished that goal, with almost a dozen nominations for Streep and a handful for her costars Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg. That doesn’t mean the movie feels any better than the short parodic scenes that have come to make fun of films like this one.
Streep plays the title character in Florence Foster Jenkins, a patron of the musical community in 1944 New York City. As owner of the Verdi Club, she is a key element in the musical society of the city, as well as a financial supporter of notable artists like Arturo Toscanini. However, as a performer, she is an absolute train wreck – the kind contemporary audiences love to see on audition week of American Idol just to have something to laugh at. However, few laugh at Jenkins, in part because of her societal standing, and also because of the manipulations of her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who is cautious about who gets invited to her concerts and what is published afterwards. As an operatic Icarus, Jenkins’ confidence and aspirations cause her to fly too close to the sun, in this case, secretly planning a concert at the notable Carnegie Hall without the protective devices of her husband, setting up the climax of the story: just how will an unfiltered and unprotected audience respond to Jenkins’ terrible performance skills, and how will the weak-hearted Jenkins respond to those reactions?
Florence Foster Jenkins is most renowned for her answer to the question how do you get to Carnegie Hall: “Practice, practice, practice.” Most people know the quote but don’t know the irony involved in that answer, considering all the practice in the world couldn’t salvage Jenkins’ terrible voice and that the real way she got to Carnegie Hall was by buying her way there. The quote feels applicable to Meryl Streep as well: How do you get to the Oscar stage? Practice, practice, practice. In this case, that practice is yet another form of a story and character that is starting to make Streep feel typecast. Much like Roberta Guaspari (Music of the Heart) and Julia Child (Julie & Julia), the character here is struggling against odds to do something that she isn’t skilled or meant to do. Yet, she overcomes adversity, does it anyway, and the accolades come in. Yes, it’s just a few select pictures in a lengthy career for Streep, but it’s the ones getting her attention. She is certainly capable of more variety, so why does the actress keep returning to similar roles? Is it a question of the sexism in Hollywood, where these are the roles being offered, or is it simply lazy role selection on the part of the actress?
That’s not to say Streep isn’t good here. She is. But she isn’t exceptional. Her character has a feeling of “been there, seen that,” and frankly it was more impressive when she was emulating Julia Child. There simply isn’t enough of a dynamic to the role here. We hear numerous times about her waning health, but it only actually enters the story a few times, with a lack of subtlety. Jenkins is a steamroller, overcoming obstacles without any real hesitation, and one has to wonder why others have to be so protective of her given the way Streep portrays the character.
Better performances come from the male side of the cast. Hugh Grant plays a man who definitely loves his wife in a kind and caretaking way, but also wants more than his limited life with her can offer. His relationship with mistress/girlfriend Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson) feels conflicted and complex. At the same time, he is a man who clearly idolizes his wife’s ability to perform despite her lack of skill, especially when he is able to recite several brilliant moments of Shakespeare but lacks the same conviction towards his own performances. Simon Helberg’s portrayal of pianist Cosme McMoon provides the perfect audience surrogate. He reacts with stifled laughter when he first hears Jenkins perform, but comes to be just as protective of her desire to perform as her husband, hopefully matching the audience’s reaction to Streep’s character. There are also some nice subtleties to Helberg’s performance that display his character’s sexuality, ambitions, and concerns. It’s certainly a nice change for an actor who has been locked into punchlines surrounding his role as a geeky jew on Big Bang Theory.
I’m sure there are many people out there who will enjoy Florence Foster Jenkins; after all, the critic community certainly is. Ultimately, however, it feels uninspired – a rehash of biopic narratives we’ve seen before featuring characters we’ve seen played by the same actress before. Despite the critical acclaim and nominations, both Streep and her audience deserves better than this.