Mad Cow Rating: 2 ½ triangles
Meryl Streep does it again with this fun movie. She clearly had a good time with it. New Yorker Florence would not have been so interesting had she been poor and lived in the Midwest. But hey! Well-to-do Florence (1868-1944) loved music and always wanted to sing, especially after she was forced to abandon the piano. (See the movie and find out why.) Her second husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, The Rewrite) devotedly pretends that she has talent, as do her friends. Toscanini relies on her largesse for big productions. Others get paid off one way or another by her devoted husband and manager. And in her way she is a lovely woman, as long as one can get past the screechy singing.
It’s to Streep’s credit that she can avoid portraying Jenkins as a completely ridiculous cartoon character while retaining her superficiality. Florence can afford to be taken care of and she takes full advantage of that. She is not oblivious of the world but somehow cannot hear her own singing voice. When she decides, once again, that she should take singing lessons, St. Clair dutifully and enthusiastically re-engages her voice coach, Carlo Edwards (David Haig) and a pianist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, Big Bang Theory) to accompany her. It doesn’t take long for her to want to perform in concert halls, notably Carnegie Hall. Her singing is horribly well beyond any help from coaching. Streep, an excellent singer (I recommend Ricki and the Flash and the last song in Postcards from the Edge) had to have a voice coach to learn how to sing poorly.
Kudos to Simon Helberg, well cast as the ubiquitous pianist. Screenwriter Nicholas Martin (making his debut from TV to the big screen) used the character well. The shy Cosme, constantly on the verge of quitting, expresses a range of emotion with good comic timing and provides a narrative thread throughout the film. Farcical moments go in tandem with serious character development. Florence may not be the pampered doll she seems to be and St. Clair may or may not be devoted to her. Yet we move along as if in a Woody Allen-esque period piece. The excellent acting and direction from Stephen Frears, rather than the plot, keep us interested.
The film could easily have been a disaster were it not for smart small scenes throughout.Actress Nina Arianda, who plays Agnew Stark, the “floosy” third wife of the rich patron Phineas Stark (Stanley Townsend) is hilarious in her spontaneous reaction to hearing Florence singing at a concert. The scene is priceless and essential.
Hugh Grant has apparently been on the verge of retiring for a few years. He’s a good actor and I hope he hangs in there. Florence is a nice transition for him from pretty-boy leading man to mature man who may or may not have an actual love interest. In Florence, he does have a girlfriend on the side (Rebecca Ferguson) but we don’t get to see much of her. Grant, whom I still remember for his marvelous performance in Sense and Sensibility, has a lot to offer.
A recent French movie, Marguerite, is also based on Jenkins’ story, and received better reviews. I don’t know if it has hit Cleveland or is on its way. The trailer reveals a much less silly character, but then again it’s not Meryl Streep. One reviewer suggested that Streep was “coasting”with this probably easy-for-her part, but really, she has certainly earned the right to do whatever she wants.