Florence Foster Jenkins: Loving the un-pretty voices

Award season doesn’t hit for another several months, with major contenders typically not hitting theaters until mid-December.

There’s usually one exception to this rule annually and in 2016, it comes in the form of Meryl Streep, an actress so synonymous with Academy Award nominations that her mere involvement in a feature vaults it to the top of prognosticators’ lists.

Her latest film, the comedic biopic “Florence Foster Jenkins,” certainly doesn’t disappoint in any regard. 

After finding critical and moderate commercial success in early August, Streep’s latest film returned to new theaters last week and wowed audiences with its rarely successful combination of humor and poignancy.

In the film, Streep stars as Jenkins, a World War II-era socialite who utilizes her family fortune to sponsor classical music concerts across New York City. Eager to make it herself as an opera star, she enlists the talents of her actor/manager husband St Clair (Hugh Grant), pianist Cosme (Simon Helberg) and an assistant conductor for the Metropolitan Opera to coach her despite the fact that she is unaware how incapable she is of singing well.

Films like “Florence Foster Jenkins” aren’t worth making without a generational talent like Streep and she proves it once again in the film’s titular role. At first glance, there’s a lot of Streep’s Oscar nominated turn as Julia Child in “Julie and Julia” within her Florence. But Streep imbues Florence with significantly more depth than it might appear and certainly more than “the world’s worst famous singer” moniker might imply.

While it’s obvious to point out how difficult it is to intentionally sing poorly (and Streep does so masterfully), the true brilliance within her performance is how effortlessly Streep layers Florence’s public and private personas. As a character, Florence naturally interacts differently with all the men in her life, but does so in a much more authentic way than one might expect from a traditional biopic. Streep does a wonderful job of invigorating each of her characters with such extreme individuality. 

Grant’s charming, yet duplicitous turn as Florence’s husband St Clair could very well earn the veteran actor his long overdue first Academy Award nomination. Grant makes St Clair charming and out for himself just enough to justify his secret affair while simultaneously demonstrating his character’s immense and enduring love for Florence.

“Big Bang Theory” star Helberg surprises not only with his refreshingly touching and humorous role as pianist Cosme McMoon, but with his actual musical talent. A well versed musician in his own right, Helberg plays all of the music within “Florence Foster Jenkins” himself. It’s a unique talent that helped land the TV funnyman his first big movie in a critical supporting role opposite Streep. 

What make Helberg perfect for “Florence Foster Jenkins,” however, is his pitch perfect comic timing in both the verbal and non-verbal sense, matching exactly the audience’s genuine reaction to Florence’s musical idiosyncrasies. Viewers are best able to emotionally connect with the film’s poignant third act by growing to love Florence as Cosme does. Helberg’s terrific performance elevates the entire film beyond being simply “a Meryl Streep movie.” 

“Florence Foster Jenkins” isn’t remotely close to director Stephen Frears’ best work, with 2006’s “The Queen” and 2013’s “Philomena” both being better written, more technically savvy works. But Frears knows enough to get out of his own way and let his stars’ performances shine.

In all likelihood, “Florence Foster Jenkins” will only be in contention for accolades in acting categories despite being one of the year’s most singularly delightful offerings. Streep’s name alone could garner her 20th Academy Award nomination for a deserving performance while a charming Grant could slip into best supporting actor contention depending on how other films shake out in December.

Though the humor is dry, “Florence Foster Jenkins” is anything but a bore and should be a must see for movie fans looking for the film’s second theatrical run or as a rental at the end of the year.

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