The human capacity for self-delusion has long been fodder for dramatists. Usually it’s the stuff of satire or tragedy.
“Florence Foster Jenkins,” though, has it both ways.
Written by Nicholas Martin (his first feature after a long career in Brit TV), directed by Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “Philomena,” “The Queen”) and starring Meryl Streep in a prime slice of Oscar bait, this real-life yarn encourages us to laugh uproariously at the human foibles on display but sends us away in a somber mood.
It’s the rare film that discovers dignity in foolishness.
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The title character was a real person, a New York heiress (1868-1944) who became famous — or infamous — for her out-of-tune renditions of operatic arias.
Frears’ film unfolds in the last year of Florence’s life. Our guide to her oddball world is Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), a scrawny, struggling pianist who as the film begins is hired as Florence’s accompanist and discovers to his horror that he’s backing one of the century’s worst voices.
What’s more, he’s now immersed in Florence’s bizarre household.
Streep’s Florence has more money than good sense. A lover of classical music, she has devoted much of her fortune to private recitals at which she is the main attraction.
A zaftig dowager (Streep wears a convincing fat suit) with alarming taste in fashion and the stage presence of an eager child, Florence honestly believes that she has a great voice. This delusion is encouraged by the blue-haired biddies who are her devoted fans and by her common-law husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield (an excellent Hugh Grant).
Bayfield is a failed Shakespearean actor — one of those hammy thesps whose delivery is all about the words but rarely about their meaning — who for three decades has been sponging off the Jenkins fortune.
Theirs is a chaste relationship, thanks to a medical situation that is genuinely tragic.
At first glance, then, Bayfield may seem mercenary. He even keeps a young mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) in an East Side brownstone.
But one of the marvels of this film and of Grant’s nuanced performance is that Bayfield cares for Florence and is fiercely protective. This may take the form of gently putting her to bed at night (again, like a child) or bribing a music critic to stay away from her recitals.
So “Florence Foster Jenkins” is a love story, albeit a weird one.
The plot centers on Florence’s determination to make her public debut. Her plan is to rent Carnegie Hall, giving away tickets to her friends and to hundreds of the servicemen passing through wartime NYC.
What could go wrong?
While the film boasts terrific supporting performances and a detailed re-creation of the ’40s Big Apple, its success depends upon Streep. If Florence never rises above the level of delusional idiot, the movie turns into a snickerfest: amusing, often hilarious, but essentially empty and mean-spirited.
But Streep, arguably our greatest actress, leaves the audience teetering between gut-busting laughter and genuine admiration for her character’s blessed innocence.
The recital scenes are comic gems, with Streep (a fine singer with numerous musical credits on stage and in film) mangling Verdi with inspired relish. (Is it difficult for a good singer to portray a truly bad one?) Her guileless eagerness in tackling the great arias is palpable.
And there’s more depth here than one expects. Delusion may be Florence’s game, but every now and then she experiences a moment of clarity, a flash of doubt that suggests she’s not quite the fool we think she is.
As Bayfield, Grant gives one of his best performances ever. A supporting actor nomination seems likely.
But then he may find himself competing in that category against his co-star Helberg, best known as the Beatle-banged dweeb Howard on TV’s hit “The Big Bang Theory.”
Helberg has a horsey face and geeky physique made for comedy, and his initial reactions to Florence’s “talent” are a scream. But his Cosme (another real-life figure) undergoes a transformation, easing from abject disgust to affection for his music-mangling employer. It’s all quite sweet.
Who would have expected a pitch-perfect movie about a woman who couldn’t carry a tune?
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘Florence Foster Jenkins’
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:50.