Doomsday Reels: The Last Man on Earth
August 28, 2016
Movie Curiosities: Morgan
September 4, 2016

Movie Curiosities: Florence Foster Jenkins

A few years ago, I spent an entire week examining the concept of “so bad it’s good”. It’s a fascinating concept, the notion that something could be so impossibly bad that it becomes unintentionally hilarious, earning laughs and staying power for years to come. So it is that something objectively awful earns a sincere fanbase full of genuine affection.

How does such a phenomenon happen? It’s elusive, in large part because it’s purely accidental. At the heart of nearly everything “so bad it’s good” is somebody with the best of intentions. Somebody who genuinely wants to make something entertaining and enlightening, without the slightest hint of ill will toward the audience. Quite frequently, those involved have a grand artistic statement to make, even if that statement isn’t particularly interesting or well-thought-out. Put simply, a “so bad it’s good” auteur is someone whose reach exceeds their grasp by an impossibly delusional amount, but the effort made is so sincere that the rest of us can only go “bless your heart.”

(Side note: None of this applies to Manos: The Hands of Fate, a trashy disasterpiece famously made by a fertilizer salesman on a bet.)

Cinephiles could point to any number of “so bad it’s good” artists, from Ed Wood to Tommy Wiseau, but of course this concept isn’t exclusive to movies. The music world has given us no shortage of examples, William Hung and Rebecca Black among the more notable in recent memory. But Florence Foster Jenkins was a particularly special case.

Florence Foster Jenkins is based on the brief musical “career” of the real-life Jenkins (here immortalized by Meryl Streep). Having inherited a considerable fortune, Jenkins has spent several years as a patron of the arts, developing lofty connections and donating money to support the music scene in New York. Additionally, Jenkins has been dying for the past several decades, due to encroaching complications from a syphilis infection she contracted at eighteen. I might add that the treatments for syphilis back then were apparently mercury and arsenic.

With her mortality and old age looming over, Jenkins decides to leverage her resources into a singing career. Through her contacts and money, Jenkins is able to secure a voice coach, a recording studio, a pianist (Cosme McMoon, played by Simon Helberg), and such prestigious venues as Carnegie Hall.

There’s just one problem: Jenkins can’t sing. At all. McMoon says at one point that her voice defies medical science, and he’s probably not wrong. However, the fact remains that Jenkins is very wealthy and well-connected. Everybody in the arts scene (with one or two exceptions) wants to keep her happy, so everyone grins and keeps on fawning over the empress’ new clothes.

Her chief enabler is her second husband, played by Hugh Grant (the first husband is dead, by the way). St. Clair Bayfield is Jenkins’ partner in all things, tirelessly supporting her through her sickness, through her philanthropic efforts, and through her musical career. They seem to love each other very deeply, though they’ve never slept together for obvious reasons — for that, Bayfield has a girlfriend on the side (Kathleen, played by Rebecca Ferguson).

The addition of a mistress complicates things, as it calls Bayfield’s love for Jenkins into question. And it doesn’t help that Bayfield is clearly shown taking every opportunity to boost his own profile by association with Jenkins. Is he only protecting his golden goose, or is he boosting all these blatantly false impressions of Jenkins’ talent as a misguided act of loving protection?

Not that it matters, because Bayfield is never held accountable for anything. The guy goes to ridiculous lengths in lying to his wife, doing his absolute damnedest to make sure she never learns the truth about her status as a laughingstock or his marital infidelity… and he’s never made to answer for it. Not once.

As for Jenkins and her own ego, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this whole misguided singing career was a self-aggrandizing act of utter delusion. Then again, it’s tough to say that for certain — of course Jenkins is going to think that she’s brilliant when everyone around her only says what they think she wants to hear. No, Jenkins seems to be much more strongly motivated by a deep abiding love for music and the joy that it brings.

Jenkins as a character could best be summed up by her decision to give away a thousand tickets for her Carnegie Hall concert to veterans of the ongoing WWII. She sees it as a gesture of gratitude, offering a night of free music and entertainment to bring some joy to the young men who’ve lived through unspeakable horrors while defending our freedom abroad. In practice… well, it’s a thousand drunken young men together under one crowded roof. What could possibly go wrong?

As the film unfolds and Jenkins sings to progressively larger crowds, we start to see that more and more people might be enjoying her works ironically. People in the crowd openly laugh at her tone-deaf musical stylings. But here’s a question the film never asks: So what? Even if the crowds may not be enjoying her music in the intended way, they’re still very clearly enjoying it. And if Jenkins really is all about spreading joy through music, shouldn’t that be all that really matters to her? The film never thinks to ask that question, never mind answer it.

There’s also McMoon to consider. Here’s a young artist just starting out, eager to make a name for himself, and he gets to play at Carnegie freaking Hall. That’s a tremendous opportunity he may never have gotten otherwise, certainly not at so young an age. The film never thinks to mention this, but it was only made possible through Jenkins’ patronage, and she could potentially have opened so many doors for this genuinely talented young up-and-comer as a direct result. Even if Jenkins crashes and burns, McMoon could potentially go on to a brilliant career in music, with this work for Jenkins as a springboard. And again, this potentially wonderful thematic point is only barely hinted at.

(Full disclosure: According to the title cards in the epilogue, McMoon’s musical career would fizzle out soon afterwards.)

This brings me to another crucial point about Jenkins: If she really wanted to support the arts and bring more music to the world, she was already doing that. She was donating money, raising funds, networking and promoting artists, and so on. You can ask any local artist — The best way to support the arts is simply to show up, give what money you can, and spread the word.

None of these potential themes and statements are ever addressed by the film proper. Instead, the filmmakers steadfastly insist on framing the story as an inspirational tale about a woman who pursued her dream against all odds. It’s rank and utter bullshit, for reasons that should be obvious by now.

This isn’t a story of a woman who overcomes adversity and works hard to hone her skills until she’s finally good enough to play in the big leagues. Jenkins never has to face obstacles head-on because all the other characters shield her to the point where she doesn’t even know the obstacles exist. Every concert was carefully staged and coordinated through her own money and connections (albeit with heavy assistance from her husband). And when all is said and done, she’s no better at singing than she was at the outset. To put it simply and bluntly, Jenkins didn’t earn any of her achievements — she bought them. As a direct result, the whole inspirational angle falls apart. It’s not just dishonest and stupid, it’s frankly quite insulting.

Moving on to the cast, there’s really nothing much to say. Helberg does quite well as the audience surrogate, and Grant delivers a surprisingly nuanced role with this material. They each get some moments that are actually funny. But of course it’s Meryl Streep’s show.

Streep is amazing to watch, but you already knew that. I don’t think there’s another actress alive who could possibly need a theatrical showcase less than Meryl Streep. At this point, I’d much rather see Streep as part of an ensemble or bringing the necessary gravitas to a small yet crucial role, rather than see her as the centerpiece of yet another film masquerading as a Best Actress campaign. Then again, August: Osage County and Suffragette both sucked, so what do I know?

Getting back to Streep’s performance in this film, she does a perfectly fine job playing someone who’d rather fly too close to the sun than die quietly. That said, there are so many protracted scenes of Streep singing terribly, in spite of the strained smiles around her, that the whole picture only barely avoids becoming a one-joke movie.

(Side note: There’s a dream sequence at the end, in which Streep is obligingly given the chance to show that she really does have singing talent.)

If the thought of Meryl Streep screeching incoherently strikes you as the apex of hilarity, then I’m sure you’ll find a lot to love about Florence Foster Jenkins. Otherwise, the film is infuriating in how it passes up so many chances to make some honest and relevant statements about the arts, choosing instead to go with an “inspirational” angle that’s outrageous bullshit. There are a few funny moments, the period production design looks great, and the performances are all good, but I get the sense that this one was vastly more fun to make than it was to sit through.

This was very clearly made as early awards bait, and the Academy might be dumb enough to throw Streep another nomination for it. As such, anyone who wants to stay informed about the awards races might have to give this a watch or a rental at some point. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend it.

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