In all her years of making movies, the one thing the undeniably brilliant Meryl Streep has never attempted is playing dotty — a dope. So now that she’s nearing that certain age, why not try her hand at a sort of Margaret Dumont, the daft foil to the Marx Brothers?
After making a couple of musicals, why not take a shot at singing badly, on purpose, as a character who has no idea how bad she is?
And as a co-star, why not make Hugh Grant relevant again in his best role this millennium?
“Florence Foster Jenkins” is the sort of real-life upper class twit that Monty Python suggested only could come from Britain. She didn’t. She was an heiress who married money, a New York patroness of the arts, a woman who lived “for music,” as she, her husband and everyone who knew her proclaimed.
She sponsored orchestras, underwrote concerts and, because she REALLY loved music, turned her wobbly contralto loose on arias, art songs and airs in public recitals.
And as Florence, Streep fearlessly fights off pitch, tortures tone and shatters nerves, joyously and cluelessly. Streep revels in this role like no part she’s had since her dead-on Julia Child impersonation in “Julia & Julia.”
Florence’s famous singing Metropolitan coach (David Haig) thinks nothing of taking her money and feeding her delusion. The great conductor Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) praises her art with his hand out — for this upcoming concert or that one, you see.
Come to her recital? Oh, I would, darling, but I will be vacationing in Florida that day. Whatever that day is. Or rehearsing. Yes, the orchestra loves to rehearse Saturday nights.
Her champion is her common law husband, St. Clair Bayfield, an actual Brit, an aging actor of little talent, measured charm and a mistress. Grant plays this faded, defeated thespian with a light theatricality that suits the man to a T. His gestures are broad, onstage, where he recites poems and monologues and emcee’s Florence’s musical “tableaux” at her arts club for socialites, The Verdi Club. And offstage, Grant gives him the same wide, embracing sweep of the hands, the same nurturing embrace he gives Florence and other outcasts.
For a ne’er do well, St. Clair is a real swell.
That’s how he comes off to young pianist Cosme McMoon. St. Clair is just another leech living off her largesse, McMoon — yes, that’s his real name — plainly thinks. Simon Helberg, the piano-playing nerd of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory,” gives McMoon a high-pitched wisp of a voice and the shyness of a closeted mincing man of the World War II era, a sort of sitcom actor’s take on an old stereotype. But he’s sweet and it kind of works. Cosme will happily take the overpaying job as Florence’s accompanist, even though the strain of keeping a straight face shows in every musical moment.
What Cosme and we discover is that St. Clair is “utterly devoted” to Florence, that there’s a reason and pathos to her dottiness that goes beyond inbred wealth, and that there’s an audience for her singing. It’s hand-picked by St. Clair, delicately deciding who gets into her musicales like some latter day pol filling the hall with supporters of his candidate, and no dissenters, “true music lovers, not mere mockers and scoffers.”
He even greases the palms of a few New York reviewers to ensure Florence never reads a bad notice. Florence need never know.
The columnist Earl Wilson (Christian McKay of “Me and Orson Welles”) is just the sort of hack St. Clair keeps out of reach of a Florence Foster Jenkins concert. But the brassy and coarse exotic dancer (Nina Arianda) slips through his fingers. Will she have the good manners not to laugh his wife off the New York stage?
The Englishness of it all is nicely buffed and shined by the British director Stephen Frears and the film’s Brit-TV screenwriter, Nicholas Martin. The muted colors and broad but believable characters give this wartime homefront tale a touch old school Ealing comedies, the label of many a low-and-silly British farce in the years after World War II. Streep’s screeches are caught in rapturous close-ups, as are Grant’s graying, wrinkly twinkle and Helberg’s slack-jawed incredulity.
No need for subtly here.
But Florence is hilarious, and sadly fragile, and Streep makes her pain both funny and poignant. We wince on her behalf, wondering who will be cruel enough to tell her the truth first? A critic? Real musicians, like Cosme? St. Clair’s live-in lover (Rebecca Ferguson)? The abrasive Agnes? The gays? The soldiers and sailors who fill every spare inch of New York in 1944?
This is one area where the film strays from the literal truth. Even her “fans” were more self-aware than her.
But that diversion from reality is how the film’s true forebear makes itself clear. Frears & Co. have transformed New York during the war to the Mayberry, N.C. of Andy Griffith, a small town where, if necessary, every breathing soul can be enlisted in a vast, good-hearted conspiracy to protect somebody’s feelings.
Florence, like Aunt Bee, need never know how awful her pickles are. And Meryl Streep, in the Don Knotts role, can never realize just how tone-deaf and talent-free she is. Because that would be hurtful, unnecessary and simply bad manners.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief suggestive material.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Christian McKay
Credits: Directed by Stephen Frears, script by Nicholas Martin. A Paramount release.
Running time: 1:49