By definition, a feel-good film is something that should leave you with warm feelings of inspiration or general happiness by the end. Typically stories of overcoming great adversity or reaching a personal goal. Earlier this year, we saw the story of a tenacious Olympic hopeful and his dream of competing against the best in the world in the film Eddie the Eagle. His story was inspirational because of the great obstacles he faced getting there and all the hard work he put towards his goal just so that he could achieve a personal best, even if it meant not winning a medal. The story of Florence Foster Jenkins may sound similar to Eddie’s but if you listen closer, one will realize the different musical scales they are actually on.
Stephen Frears directs this misguided film as if it were about a woman whose story was inspiring and uplifting. Despite the gorgeous set designs and attention to detail in every scene, this film still comes through as an ugly affair. Unlike his past films about strong female characters, like Philomena and The Queen, Frears forces Florence Foster Jenkins’ perspective to emphasize how she affected the men in her life rather than focusing more on her personal struggle. Much like the men in her life manipulated her, this film’s attempts to do the same to the audience into thinking there is something noble and endearing about lying to and sheltering a person from the truth for decades.
Most of the men in Florence’s life took advantage of her, and to some extent, her disease for their personal and financial gain. The symptoms of syphilis are well-known, as are the side effects of the time period’s medications like arsenic and mercury. Florence Foster Jenkins does a great job at reminding you of Florence’s physical health problems, but hardly makes mention of the mental toll the illness and “medication” had on her. This is a point of view first-time film writer Nicholas Martin wants to completely shy away from because it would reveal the true colors of the story instead of the rose-colored revisionist vision he would like us to see.
Florence Foster Jenkins fails to work on the basic level of an inspirational story because every problem was solved by throwing money at it, which is not relatable to the majority of the population that consists of working-class, unwealthy people. I don’t need to go the movie theater to see an unqualified person use their money and influence to force themselves into a position they have no right to occupy. I can just as easily turn on the television and witness the trainwreck that is Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency and see the similar self-serving sycophants and yes-men Florence was surrounded by as they cheer Trump on in his rallies. Like Trump, the greatest ability Florence possesses is white privilege and a large amount of money to bring to life all of her ambitions.
Meryl Streep attempts to embody the eccentric persona that was Florence Foster Jenkins while adding a bit of humor to the role. Unfortunately, the character felt like a composite of characters Streep has previously played, like Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child, etc. I am in no way saying Streep’s performance is terrible, but the obvious familiarity does diminish its impact. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if this completely average performance garners her an Oscar nomination. Hugh Grant also delivers a familiar performance as St Clair Bayfield, an English aristocrat posing as a gentleman. The chemistry between Streep and Grant is effortless and is meant to be charming despite the circumstances surrounding their common law marriage, separate living quarters, and the unconsented sexual arrangement St Clair Bayfield has between Florence and current girlfriend Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). Simon Helberg does an adequate job playing opportunist pianist Cosmé McMoon despite not being able to physically represent the Mexican-American musician. I would find the performances of the men much more impressive if the film wasn’t trying to morally aggrandize them instead of emphasizing how they were all gold-digging enablers supporting Florence as a means of pacifying and controlling her and her money.
The story of Florence has been unfairly romanticized and would not be any more acceptable today as it should have been in the past. A contemporary example of what Florence experienced would be if American Idol were a prank show where they only picked the worst contestants but gave them false encouragement and lied to them about their ability. Then the show continued with the worst performers battling it out each week thinking that they were fighting for the title of America’s best singer. The audience would be in on this cruel national joke at the expense of these people, and the contestants would find out the true intentions of the show by the end. This is essentially what Foster Florence Jenkins comes off as. She became a national spectacle once before and because of this film, she will now become a global one. Unfortunately, I find nothing funny about lying, manipulation and opportunism. There is nothing inspirational or touching about the story in Florence Foster Jenkins, but it instead serves as a cautionary tale about privilege, the effects of money, and the cruelty of men.
Rating: ★★★ (3/10 stars)