Florence Foster Jenkins is a delectable alternative to the noisy fare that fill multiplexes this time of year. It offers yet another plum role to the peerless Meryl Streep and juicy parts to Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg.
If the name of the title character doesn’t ring a bell, this slice of upper-crust New York cultural life in the 1940s will disarm and delight you. Even having seen the French import Marguerite earlier this year, which covers the same territory, and Judy Kaye’s one-woman show Souvenir a decade ago, I had no feeling of déjà vu watching this genteel and engaging time capsule.
Jenkins was a wealthy socialite who supported musical causes and loved to sing. Because of her generosity and kindness no one had the nerve to tell her that her voice was appalling, especially her protective husband. Grant’s witty and nuanced performance is one of the movie’s prime assets; he is never less than believable as a man who truly cares for his spouse even though he maintains an apartment (and a mistress) on the side.
Helberg, best known as the costar of television’s Big Bang Theory, is equally good as the young, naïve musician who is hired as Madame Foster’s accompanist. His first reaction to her caterwaul is a fit of giggling, but in time he comes to care for her because she is so completely sincere.
One of director Stephen Frears’ greatest challenges is recreating the sights and sounds of 1940s Manhattan, despite having made most of his movie in the U.K. The savvy viewer must be willing to meet him halfway, which I was willing to do.
As for Meryl Streep, she has found yet another role that takes full advantage of her glorious gifts. She makes almost any movie worth seeing: fortunately, this one is more than a mere star vehicle. British TV veteran Nicholas Martin has crafted an amusing, intelligent screenplay that left me with a smile on my face. Florence Foster Jenkins is one of the highlights of the summer movie season.