While surfing YouTube on my TV late one night, up popped this trailer:
It's a hoary cliche to say one's jaw dropped, but in my case it was true. How was this a thing?
Some backstory: I was raised by an opera-loving mother who took me when she could to see the Metropolitan Opera when they toured. I saw Tosca with Plácido Domingo as Scarpia and Luciano Pavarotti as Cavaradossi (two of the Three Tenors before they were a thing!) and when we went to Rome, we spent and afternoon walking to visit the locations of the three acts. (Fun Facts: Scarpia's place is the French Embassy now and there is no way in hell Tosca could've made it to the Tiber River from the roof of Castel Sant'Angelo as portrayed; it's too far.)
Back when Detroit still had a classical radio station (WQRS), the afternoon drive DJ, Dave Wagner, would occasionally throw on a tune by the titular Florence Foster Jenkins and it was......um......different. To cut to the chase as implied by the trailer, she sang worse than Axl Rose filling in for AC/DC. Hard to believe, but true. But because/despite her.....uhhh...."limited" gifts, she had somehow managed to become the stuff of legend. Which is now a movie. Starring Meryl Streep. Duh. Fuh?
Set in the last year of Jenkins' life, 1944, Florence Foster Jenkins is viewed through the eyes of her accompanist Cosmé McMoon (The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg), hired by Jenkins' husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). The audition scene is a hoot as he's not sure if he's the victim of a prank or whether this woman is crazy. Bayfield tucks his wife into bed every night and heads to an apartment he's keeping with a mistress which is weird, but there's a pretty shocking reason as to why this arrangement is a thing.
Jenkins' performances were limited to small groups of fellow socialites with no press permitted and it's never really made clear as to whether these people were quietly laughing behind their silk-gloved hands at her, but it's been a workable business model and everyone has seemed happy. However, this arrangement is threatened when Jenkins takes some phonograph records she recorded as a lark and sends them to a radio station which has begun playing them to huge reaction leading to her booking a recital at Carnegie Hall (capacity 2,804) and giving a thousand tickets to servicemen who are highly unlikely to restrain their critiques in her presence.The gig goes down (in flames) as could be expected and Bayfield's unsuccessful efforts to shield her from the press reviews make up the final segment of film.
While lovingly crafted with the usual great performance from Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins never really answers the question that I had when I discovered its existence: How is this a thing and, more relevantly, why is this a thing. In its efforts to be light and entertaining, it never seems to want to take a position on whether this woman was a loon or not so as to not pass too harsh a judgement on the long-departed dowager. It doesn't need to be a hard-hitting expose of the ritzy NYC vanity performance scene during WWII, but a little sharper focus would've been nice to prevent this from being a pleasantly forgettable trifle.
Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.
After the screening, I noticed a cute, underplayed bit of promo swag left out for exiting viewers: tiny poster cards with a packet of foam ear plugs attached.