A tale of the worst opera singer ever
Sometimes a biopic doesn’t need to focus on persons of great accomplishments or heavy notoriety for a dark deed, sometimes it could be about a wealthy American socialite who was the worst opera singer ever…wait that doesn’t sound appealing to you? Tough cookies, Hollywood said this is what Meryl Streep wants you act in so we have to pay attention now. Well, maybe there’s a decent idea for a comedy here, all we need is a strong supporting cast composing of…Hugh Grant and one of the guys from The Big Bang Theory…in brown face?
Dammit Meryl Streep, I like her a lot but she has picked projects by dart board and Hollywood winds up nominating you for just coughing on screen once. Well, at least she picked a funny project to act in this time so those usually don’t wind up so bad. However, the movie is acting like it has a message to deliver, but the message itself is just plain ignorant. So I should probably explain what this movie is about to clarify what I mean.
The titular character was an elderly New York socialite who sings opera in small venues for “lovers of music” according to Jenkins’ failed actor husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). However, while Jenkins believes she’s a great singer, in reality the lady can’t hold a freaking note to save her life. But she operates under the delusion of her immense talent thanks to her husband cheering her on, booking venues for close friends of hers and those who want to get in on the elite New York scene, and hiring renowned voice coaches who will take a large check to praise her when they should be laughing. One of the persons who gets swept up in this mess is a Mexican pianist named Cosmé McMoon (played by Simon Helberg…with a notable brown shade on him), who is just happy to be employed and receiving regular checks from Jenkins. However, the pianist and the singer inadvertently attract a whole lot of attention thanks to Jenkins’ poor singing and wind up booking a show that even Bayfield can’t protect her from critical damnation.
So I’ll clear up first of all that this movie isn’t bad. Hell it’s funny in a lot of parts, but it never attains the status of quality or greatness. The acting is what really boosts this film up from the lows of mediocrity, but not by much. See while Streep, Grant, and Helberg all turn in solid performances with great comedic timing, the script isn’t that interesting to keep you invested. Your first fifteen minutes feel like a real chore to get through because there is barely any comedy and your simply introduced to the trio of main characters in their day to day lives. But there’s no stakes, nothing of interest is there to grab on to that I was prepared to write this film off as a wash until Jenkins began to truly sing. It was only then that I realized I was watching a comedy given how poor her singing was and how everyone around her is pulling The Emperor’s New Clothes stunt.
Now for a comedy, this is definitely an odd choice to begin your film and it threw me off completely given that this director was known for quiet dramas like Philomena and The Queen. But this beginning is indicative of the confusion this film goes through when it comes to the movie’s thesis, its tone and its characters. To understand what I mean, I need to talk about Grant’s character because he’s the linchpin of this whole thing and the reason why the film doesn’t work.
As I stated earlier, Grant is doing a fine job here so I’m not criticizing his acting ability, but I am critical of this writer and director on what they decided to do with St. Clair Bayfield. The character is initially introduced as a philandering asshole who takes advantage of his wife’s large fortune to afford his own apartment blocks away from Jenkins where he keeps his alcoholic mistress around. You then see the lengths he’s willing to go to ensure that his wife’s performances are well received and she never hears of any hints that she can’t freaking sing. You also find that the reason he keeps this ridiculous charade up is because he finds it all fun.
So that’s a pretty interesting angle to go for an exceptionally dark character that would be well suited for a black comedy. Except this isn’t a dark comedic take, it’s supposed to be a charming, uplifting story about following your dreams no matter how shit you are at them. See the problems I have with the message yet? You have one character performing pretty despicable acts but rather than treat him like the asshole that he is, the movie chooses to portray him as a “devoted” husband. However, this “devotion” isn’t made apparent until the last third of this film when the movie reveals its climax. As to why we get a late indication of where this film wants to go, see typical issues with narrative and biopics.
Actually, for a biographical film titled Florence Foster Jenkins, she’s not really the main focus of the movie. We get to know way more about the men in her life than we do about this woman, and that goes for Helberg’s take on Cosmé McMoon. I’ll get to him soon enough, but I want to rag on Streep’s character first. Jenkins is only superficially developed, with no inherent flaws aside from her crap vocal talents and even comes across as a character to pitied. She suffers from a debilitating illness that necessitates her husband to have a separate living quarters, she lives in bliss about her own vocal range, and Jenkins ultimately does not have an arc to go through. For some odd reason, they leave the development for Bayfield and McMoon instead.
Now as with Grant and Streep, Helberg doesn’t do a bad job as portraying this pianist finding himself way in over his head. He even has a narrative arc that fit the tone of whimsy this movie was attempting to go for but fell flat on its face in all other areas. However, I do question why Helberg is so noticeably darker in complexion compared to the rest of the cast. It was bothering me when I first saw the film as I initially didn’t recognize him until my brain screamed The Big Bang Theory and I realized who I was watching. But when I checked out the Wikipedia article about the dude, it turns out he was a Mexican-American man with a very tan skin. This doesn’t bother me like other racially miscasting films, but I am somewhat confused as to what was the point in giving him the character that appearance when the film clearly didn’t give a shit about making anyone else in the cast look like their historical counterparts.
What this all leads to is a very muddled film with confusing priorities and a waste of a perfectly decent, but not exceptional, cast. Honestly, I think the various Hollywood awards ceremonies like the Golden Globes would have ignored this film were it not for Streep’s involvement. And don’t get me wrong, Streep is one of the most talented actresses of our time (whatever our future President has to say…though it seems like everyone who doesn’t like him is “overrated”), but as with Into the Woods, August: Osage County, and The Iron Lady, she’s giving a decent performance in a pretty mediocre films. But that’s the thing, all the actors did fine jobs but nothing exceptional like what the the awards ceremonies should be focusing on. This film is ultimately just pandering to the awards demographic to only appeal to them and barely anyone else. So for general audiences, I’ll give this a high…
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