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Monday, August 15, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins 2016 Meryl Streep Hugh Grant. Slight, Warm, Amusing.

"Florence Foster Jenkins" is a mildly amusing and warm-hearted movie about a real person, Florence Foster Jenkins, who sang very badly and yet used her inherited wealth and influence to sing one concert at Carnegie Hall, one of the premier venues for classic music. The one joke is stretched rather thin.

Florence (Meryl Streep) pours her heart into singing an opera aria. Listeners look at her outlandish costume and see her working so very hard to crank out earsplitting sounds. The listeners look shocked and then they laugh – "Oh! This is a joke! You almost had me there!" and then they realize that she's serious, not kidding, and then they suppress their laughter. This happens a few times too many in the film. Rubber-faced Simon Helberg, playing the part of Florence's piano accompanist, the excellently named Cosme McMoon, mimes this shock / laughter / pity routine several times.

There's more to the movie than its one joke. There is also some pathos and insight. Florence Foster Jenkins contracted a serious illness from her first husband and her life was full of private pain she worked hard to conceal. The scenes where Florence's difficult private life are revealed cause the viewer to feel some admiration and sympathy for this otherwise ridiculous and manipulative figure. Also, Florence's so-called "marriage" to actor St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) is touching. Bayfield and Florence never consummated their union. They never even wed. Bayfield had a mistress. But still it's clear that he feels affection for his "Bunny."

There is also a gorgeous 1940s feel to the film. Everything has a golden glow. Costumes and era music and dances are faithfully recreated.

The movie raises several questions that matter a lot to creative people. Can artists judge their own work? Florence was a real patroness of the arts. She loved music. How is it that someone who could recognize the value of a Verdi could not recognize her own vocal failures? Especially after it had been recorded and played back to her? Is it possible that her chronic illness affected her cognition later in life?

What is the assignment of critics? Do critics benefit society by stating "This performer is very bad" even if such a review will break a harmless old woman's heart?

What if someone produces bad art that gives joy to people? Some listeners, including some soldiers serving in the war, took pleasure in Florence's performances.

What about Florence's relationship with Bayfield? Was he exploiting her by allowing her to live in her fantasy world? Or did he love her and was he being supportive?

What about Florence herself? Would it have improved her life to confront her own limitations honestly?

Again, building a movie around one joke is stretching things too far. I think this could have been a better film had it included scenes that touched on the above questions and potential answers.

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