Sunday, December 18, 2016

Catching Up: "Florence Foster Jenkins"

 3.5 / 5  

To demonstrate how unhip I am, I learned only earlier this year that experiencing things "ironically" is something people do.  Irony has always, in my life, only been a factor in the spoken or written word, occasionally in life itself when something would happen to confound expectations.

"Irony," except in Alannis Morissette songs, has always seemed to me more a noun than an adverb, then I learned that people were listening to music ironically, they were eating ironically, they were watching TV ironically, they were even taking jobs ironically -- to defy the "system," to stick it to "the man," to let all the old fuddy-duddies know that, let's say, "Bewitched" and Swanson's frozen dinners could be enjoyed ... just not quite in the way intended.

Which gets me around to the least ironic person who ever lived, or at least who ever performed on stage at Carnegie Hall: Florence Foster Jenkins, a socialite, a patron of the wartime New York arts scene, and a women born with a desire to sing.  The primary problem with her desire was that she couldn't.  Not a note.

And yet, her fierce determination and blinders-on approach to life left her with no choice: Once she stood the corner of 57th and 7th and looked up at that edifice, her fate was sealed.   But, then, it was really sealed a long time before that, as far back as the wedding night of her first marriage, when she contracted a nearly fatal case of syphilis from the man she married.   She has dosed herself, day after day, with mercury and arsenic to stave off the worst effects of the illness.  Such sadness and sickness might have dissuaded anyone else, but not this matronly millionaire, played by Meryl Strep with an indefatigable smile.

Everyone in WWII-era New York society knows about Florence Foster Jenkins.  Her "husband" (Hugh Grant) runs a strange ticket-sales system to her rare concerts, a system ruled less by supply and demand than by bribery, intimidation and in some cases simply throwing out the people who won't appreciate Mrs. Jenkins' unique music sense.

Without realizing it, Jenkins has surrounded herself with "yes" men -- "Yes, you sound beautiful, you are an inspiration," says conductor Arturo Toscanini.  Then he asks her for $1,000.  And this is the secret that even Florence herself doesn't know: If she stopped opening her checkbook, everyone would laugh at her instead of grovel at her feet.

The sycophancy extends to the young piano player who accompanies her during her daily lessons, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), who who quickly moves from being repulsed by Florence Foster Jenkins' singing to stroking her ego, because she is paying him $150 a week.

But it stops at her husband.  Sort of.  First of all, he may or may not really be her husband, second of all, he keeps a mistress on the side and has for most of his decades-long relationship with Florence, and third -- this is the key -- he is genuinely inspired by her.  He knows her story and her secrets, she has shared everything with him, and he knows that the fact that she's even alive is a miracle.  It is the hope of one day being a great singer that keeps her alive, and he knows it.

Florence also supports a tony music-appreciation club, and one day for a Christmas present she decides to make a recording of her singing.  Despite the protests of her husband St. Clair (Hugh Grant, who gives the role a genuinely conflicted humanity), the record gets out.  It gets played on the radio.  People laugh at it.  But they also hear in it something ... well, is inspiring the word?

They hear that Florence, while awful, is trying.  Likewise, they are trying to win a seemingly unwinnable war.  They are dying and getting horribly maimed, but they're really, truly trying.  Just like the fat old lady.

She is as delusional as it gets -- but, is she?   She does believe she can sing, and doesn't as much ignore those who call her terrible as simply pays them no attention. She does believe St. Clair loves her, and Cosmé is devoted to her, even though she sees what they do when she isn't around.  She may be dumb, but she's no dummy.

Still, she makes horrible decisions, like booking Carnegie Hall to hold a concert.  She has seen the soprano Lily Pons perform there, and figures, "If she can do it, so can I."  No one tells her she's terrible.  And then ... she gets on stage and sings.

It all leads to her final, famous line, which is delivered under emotional, affecting circumstances it's best not to reveal.  "They can say I can't sing," she observes.  "They can't say I didn't sing."

Streep, Grant, Helberg and director Stephen Frears, light years away from the despondency of Prick Up Your Ears and in much less a contemplative mood than in The Queen find the human underneath the ridiculous artifice of Florence Foster Jenkins, and they observe, quite rightly, that we all should be so lucky.

Viewed Dec. 17, 2016 -- VOD

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