Have a Date with “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Impossibly rich and lovingly sheltered, Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) devotes her fortune and doting attentions on the arts. A quiet and driving force behind financing operas, symphonies, and classical theater, the only thing Florence wants for herself is a career as a singer. The only problem is that she is tone-deaf and has no clue that she is an abominable singer.

And thus, the stage is set for a heartwarming comedy, based on a true story.

Hugh Grant plays her protective husband St. Clair Bayfield. As much her caretaker as her husband, St. Clair helps to coordinate her business affairs and singing lessons with some of the most noted figures in classical music in the first half of the 20th century. Legends such as Arturo Toscanini praise her singing out of respect to her support of their careers and endeavors, never once letting on that she is a horrid vocalist. St. Clair fosters a whole network of friends, journalists and artists who warmly encourage and support Florence’s dreams of being a professional singer. It is a grand deception born out of love.

When hiring a new pianist to help accompany her, St. Clair is extremely careful not to let any sneering professional near her. Enter the bright-eyed and accepting Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), a struggling piano protégé who cannot believe his luck in earning Florence’s patronage while also baffled by her total lack of ability.

Together the three set forth on a Quixotic quest to advance Florence’s ambitions, without ever letting there be a doubt leak out about Florence’s complete lack of skill. Through connections and sheer, blind luck Florence sets up her debut at Carnegie Hall, but can her perfect bubble of ignorance and support survive such a large stage?

Not surprisingly, Streep is an absolute gem, losing herself in the role of this matronly heiress, without ever winking at the camera to let us know she’s in on the joke. Grant is absolutely charming. The subplots of this film make his character far more complex than simply a loving husband of a dotty wife. There’s an element of scam in his actions and those of many of the folks who enjoy her patronage. What works is that these people all seem to have a genuine love for Florence and are protective of her, not just because she gives them money. Florence is genuinely loveable and warm…and so are the people in her life, as supremely flawed as they are in their own right. Grant effortlessly walks that fine line between scoundrel and hero.

How Helberg managed to maintain such an air of surprise and wonder, is beyond me. Yet, his character, Cosmé, also proves to be more street smart and savvy than he generally appears. He, too, walks an incredibly fine line between innocence and worldly, pretending to be something it becomes clear that he is not—but very much wants to be.

In this regard, all three characters are well matched in their attempts to be something they aren’t but enjoy being for as long as they can keep the fantasy alive.

In years past, this is the type of film that would be Oscar bait. As it hit the big screens last summer, that seems almost too early for it to be much of a contender, but strong leads, gentle humor, heart and a little bit of soul make it a great film for relaxing at the end of a stressful day that requires a little imagination with which to cope.

Nathaniel Cerf doesn’t sing any better than Florence Foster Jenkins, but he writes song parodies that can rival the work of Weird Al. You can reach him, Nathaniel not Weird Al, at Nathaniel.Cerf@aent.com.