I’m just really not a fan of warm milk. I get it, some people really find it comforting or soothing or whatever. But it feels like we’ve found a better and more interesting way to have milk, and warm milk just tastes kind of…blah. Besides, milk is not necessarily something I want to put me to sleep.
That metaphor brought to you from the “I Will Never Be A Professional Writer” Warehouse and is the least subtle way to introduce that Florence Foster Jenkins just really doesn’t ultimately end up being my bag.
I mean, it’s fine. It’s a fine film filled with fine filmmaking and fine performances. It’s a perfectly respectable picture to bring your older family to so that it’s easy to walk out and go “Oh, that was nice.” And I’m not slighting it for that! That’s a perfectly respectable goal. But the nature of criticism is subjective, and I’m not necessarily vibing with a film that doesn’t reach above fine.
Florence Foster Jenkins is the true life story of the titular Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), a patron of the New York music scene and a woman afflicted with a terrible disease that’s made her feel that she needs to live each day as if it was her last. She loves to sing but her terrible not-so-secret is that she’s an absolutely dreadfully bad singer who seems to have no idea that she cannot sing, which absolutely does not stop her from performing concerts. She’s helped out in this by her loving husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and a young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) who accompanies her.
Up front, I really want to admire the sort of story that Florence Foster Jenkins is telling. It’s an admirable story about the importance of living out art with passion, no matter what. Florence loves music and she loves it in such a way that she simply must perform, the film implies that it’s essentially what keeps her alive. I do like that, I like a film that approaches art in that way. It’s a feel-good movie for those who have passion, and I can’t slight for that.
But the film feels as though it’s been kind of compressed and contorted and twisted to reach that feel-good point. Not just historically, though a cursory glance over the history of the real Florence Foster Jenkins does bring up a few changes that indicate that contortion. The film has husband St. Clair Bayfield as the one who controls her performances, keeping her safe from the “mockers and the scoffers,” but Florence herself was the one who actually controlled her audiences. This turns it into the story of love and devotion instead of a story of delusion or ego, which isn’t necessarily wrong. A story should be told that it wants to tell. But it is a choice.
What seems less by design is the strangely weightless storytelling. The film seems content to flip through the pages of this story, and it never really sinks into any one moment, exploring very little. It fires off platitudes left and right about love and passion, but it never lets any necessary moment sail home, content that the audience might have enough warm feelings towards its story and its actors that it doesn’t need to try to make you feel anything real. Again, it’s the sensation this film has of “That’s nice.” A few polite chuckles and a guffaw or two when she’s singing and a recognition of dramatic moments. Nothing more.
Florence Foster Jenkins seems to lurch through its story points, willing to hit one or then the other and jump to the next when it feels. Her Carnegie Hall moment should be the emotional climax of the film, but it feels so fleeting and quick that it’s another incident in a string of them. I just wanted impact, wanted to feel like I remember something, but less than 12 hours later I already feel the film losing any grip it ever had.
And that lack of grip or impact is in just about every bit of this film, most notably for me in the lead performance Meryl Streep gives. As I said, this is a fine performance. I also want to preface that she’s an amazing actress and that I get a lot of this is on Hollywood for not offering more roles to actresses of Meryl Streep’s age.
But on the other hand, we’ve had performances like Lily Tomlin in Grandma and Sally Field in My Name is Doris. Older actresses that feel like they’re pushing themselves, really going for something real and new. Streep hasn’t felt real and new in a very long time, and that’s a problem for an actress of her talents.
Since uncharitably since Julie and Julia, but certainly charitably since The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep has played a series of outsized surface-level roles. Nothing for her to sink her teeth into, or more accurately nothing we as an audience can sink our teeth into. Florence Foster is a non-vain performance at least, she’s wailing and going for comedic broke in her singing scenes. But those are not enough to keep the feeling She’s very admirable, and great to watch, and something we can immediately recognize as “great acting.” But her unwillingness to try something or anything new and her willingness to coast on these grand dame Oscar-courting roles with directors who are willing to just let her do her thing. Far be it from me to prescribe anything to the career of Meryl Streep, but I really wish she would try something new or raw. She’s earned the ability and the capital to really go for it, and this coasting doesn’t befit her.
Hugh Grant does a really solid job in the picture. In a weaker race, he could definitely secure an acting nom for this one, actually being given the chance to play someone with complexity. It’s a good bit as he starts to mature away from his “Young Man With Mature Face” into a “Older Man with Older Face” thing.
Florence Foster Jenkins is just the standard sort of Stephen Frears/BBC picture. He does a perfectly remarkable job, getting everything done as it’s supposed to be with a few flourishes to remind you that there’s a person behind the camera. But the film feels so rote, again, perfectly fine. There’s nothing grand here in the filmmaking and far more weaknesses in the storytelling than there should be. It’s the kind of picture that feels poised for an Oscar run in the hopes that a weak race will carry it along.
There’s just not much here. A perfectly admirable story, a nice Sunday afternoon with your grandmother. But little more seems to have been done to give this film impact or thoughtfulness or even anything lasting besides the wailing of Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins (which the film seems to want to have its cake and eat it too as far as admiring her spirit and laughing at her delusion).
It is what it is, but not much at all more.