I had never heard of Florence Foster Jenkins until the announcement of her biopic came up. But her story is the kind of thing obsessive Wikipedia rabbit holes are made of. Jenkins was a socialite and heiress in the early/mid 20th Century who dreamed of being an opera singer, and was only hindered by her total lack of talent. Actually, “lack of talent” doesn’t even come close to doing her voice justice. Her singing was aggressively awful, like a punishment for our original sin of being born with ears. But the awfulness of her voice was balanced out by being born into a Scrooge McDuck vault of money. So she bought her way into a career, culminating in a show at Carnegie Hall, which sold out in two hours. (Faster than Sinatra!) Because while she may not have had talent, she had fans. Tons of them. In addition to the “fans” looking to hook into her money and connections, she really did have a rabid fan base, even if they were asshole proto-hipsters (“mockers and scoffers”), just looking to laugh at the joke that was the original Susan Boyle.
With source material like that, there’s not much more to hope for than that they simply do justice to the story. And with Meryl Streep playing Jenkins and Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen, Dangerous Liasons) directing, there wasn’t much doubt that they would hit that mark. And aside from a few nearly unavoidable biopic missteps (too much material, leading to a general glazing over with the occasional deus ex machina plot fix), they do so and more.
Jenkins and her real life co-stars could easily have faded into cartoonish territory. She could have been the poor, sad butt of a joke, an innocent, clueless victim. Or Frears could have chosen to alienate her from the audience, since it would be understandable to not show empathy to a woman who bought her way into fame. And the same goes for Jenkins’ much younger husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). Bayfield was a classical actor who never crossed over from good to great. The obvious conclusion is that he’s golddigging Jenkins into financial comfort and bought stage time, especially since he puts his wife to bed every night before returning to his separate home, complete with live-in girlfriend.
But all of these characters are more complex than that. Jenkins may not have earned her Carnegie Hall concert by traditional means, but she truly, deeply loves music, and believes in its power and importance. She dedicated her life and her fortune to making sure the music world of New York didn’t die, especially during WWII.
And as for Bayfield, it’s hard to believe that he could truly love Jenkins when reading the bullet points of their relationship. But watching them on screen, it’s impossible to think he doesn’t. When he bribes critics or buys up all the papers with bad reviews, it’s less to keep the money flowing than to keep her immensely delicate feelings protected, and her fighting spirits high. Yet, if the money were to stop flowing, would Bayfield stay? It’s one of the film’s most impressive achievements that the answer to that question is almost undoubtedly yes, but you’d never think of that as a fault. Even Jenkins’ young new pianist (played by Simon Helberg, who finally gets to remind us how phenomenal he is after wasting a decade making Jenkins-level money on The Big Bang Theory) has a nuanced balance of affection for Florence and shame at being associated with her. Everyone here is opportunistic, and everyone is genuinely good.
This movie is the anti-Suicide Squad, the anti-blockbuster, the anti-election cycle. If you need a respite from the world, this is the alternative to “turning your brain off.” Instead, go sit in a dark room, and watch Meryl Streep be silly and tender for two hours.
In the meantime, here’s the actual Jenkins, sharing her gift. If for nothing else, you need to get yourself to the theater to see Streep positively nail a spot-on version of probably the worst singer you’ve ever heard. Streep’s squawks are a thing of joy, the best and worst thing you can put into your ears.