We know that Meryl Streep can portray a talented singer, but Florence Foster Jenkins shows that she’s equally adept at playing a bad one.
This crowd-pleasing biopic from venerable British director Stephen Frears (The Queen) takes an affectionate look at the New York socialite whose lack of talent never stopped her musical ambition — for better and worse.
It might sound like a sappy drama about following your dreams, yet the film is a much more complex portrait than that, delving into social status, the intersection of art and commerce, and the personal nature of musical taste.
Streep plays the title role, a nightclub owner and philanthropist in 1940s Manhattan whose love for opera includes dreams of performing as a grande-dame soprano on stage. The problem? Her singing is terrible, and she has no clue.
That’s because her manager and common-law husband, St. Clair (Hugh Grant), allows Florence to perform only at private functions for friends, paying them off in exchange for glowing reviews. Likewise, her private pianist (Simon Helberg) is forced to compromise his career ambitions for the money.
As her health declines, however, Florence wants to become famous, forcing St. Clair — who has thespian aspirations of his own — to take drastic steps to protect her legacy from massive public ridicule.
The film’s straightforward approach allows the actors to take the spotlight. Streep shrieks her way through the musical sequences to delightful effect while making sure Florence isn’t treated as a sideshow. Grant brings depth to his portrayal of a man who’s both ethically and artistically challenged, while Helberg (TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”) holds his own as the conflicted sidekick in the couple’s elaborate ruse.
Rookie screenwriter Nicholas Martin offers a sympathetic perspective on Florence’s legacy, treating her oblivious nature as a charming eccentricity and St. Clair’s eager payoffs as more doting than self-serving.
Meanwhile, Frears pokes fun at both Florence and Manhattan high society — against the backdrop of World War II — without resorting to cheap laughs. Sure, some of the more exaggerated elements veer into cartoonish territory, but the film retains a sensible balance of humor and poignancy.
Florence also provided the inspiration for the charming French drama Marguerite, and it’s easy to see why her oddball story makes for such great big-screen fodder — unlike its subject, Florence Foster Jenkins hits the right notes.