There are times when it is obvious the star of a movie has more invested in the project as a potential way to win awards than entertaining the audience. It may not be a conscious decision to approach the work that way, but the results are the same.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” comes across as one of those kind of projects. It looks like a production designed more to be a lure for Meryl Streep to be nominated for awards than it is intended to be a solid overall movie. And, she’s Streep. Even a home video of Streep on Facebook would get Oscar consideration.
Sadly, the movie fails to find the tempo that would make the story sing for audiences. The vulnerability, sentimentality and sweetness of the movie is like the singing voice of Florence Foster Jenkins. After a few minutes, everything goes flat.
The chief culprit in keeping this from being a first-rate film and a generator of awards nominations is writer Nicholas Martin. He has written a script that reads like a summary for a school project rather than an interesting biopic. The facts behind the real-life world of the woman who was convinced she was a wonderful singer but was actually one key away from committing musical murder are quite interesting. At least you get a recap at the end.
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Socialite Jenkins was so blind to her lack of musical skills that in the years after World War II, she rented Carnegie Hall for a solo performance. She gave away tickets to the veterans she thought liked her as a singer but were in reality just being entertained by what they thought was a comedy musical act she was performing.
Martin speeds through the elements of Jenkins’ life as if he was being charged for the filming process. There are few clues as to what would motivate Jenkins to be so unaware of her painful lack of singing skills, but there is a flickering idea about the psychology of her need to perform as a way to feel loved.
There’s little exploration of the relationship between Jenkins and her cad husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). There are moments when he seems to show real affection for Jenkins but its not clear if that is out of love or sympathy.
Even the interesting supporting role of piano player Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) is never developed. His place in Jenkins’ world, and his own world, are just a tease of what could have been fascinating elements for the story.
Instead, director Stephen Frears works at a frantic pace to get Jenkins from one failed performance to the next. This gives Streep a lot of moments of musical misfortunes, but they are delivered in such a helter-skelter manner that each seems little different than the one before it.
Even when Frears gives Streep a few quiet moments, there’s no chance to absorb the emotions before her character is speeding off to the next ear-piercing performance. This movie is put together with such poor writing and fast editing, it has no more merit than a music video for a cable network.
When you have actors like Streep and Grant, the film should find a soothing pace that allows time to appreciate a performance rather than using a tempo so fast it is more like trying to get something by the audience they might not like. Or at least boggle award show voters.