Perhaps not every quirky true story needs a biopic starring Meryl Streep, as evidenced by Stephen Frears’ bizarre “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the story of a wealthy older woman who launched an amateur singing career in the 1940s, despite her distinct lack of talent. It’s a film that invites you to giggle at Florence’s horrible singing and then scolds you for laughing, creating a double standard that goes unreconciled — to laugh or not to laugh at Florence’s tortured caterwauling.
Frears attempts to answer this question with Simon Helberg, who plays Jenkins’ sweet-natured accompanist, Cosme McMoon. Streep takes to the ear-splitting warbling of the role with gusto, and Helberg performs Olympic-level facial calisthenics in stifling his giggles at Florence’s singing. His reactions are a large part of both the humor and the moral conundrum into which “Florence Foster Jenkins” twists itself. It’s OK to laugh at her, because she’s terrible, but not in a mean way, OK?
The other man in Florence’s life is St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), her manager/fake husband (he has his own place, a girlfriend and an “understanding” with Florence). He uses a mixture of bribery and blackmail to stage Florence’s private concerts, slipping $20 bills into the invitations and keeping real music critics off the list.
His combination of enabling, indulging and protecting her is infantilizing, and you wonder for half the movie if Florence has dementia, since everyone treats her as such. Nope, it’s just syphilis, contracted from ex-husband Mr. Jenkins, and the ensuing treatments of mercury and arsenic.
Frears is taking direct aim at critics, and at those who enjoy art ironically. He and writer Nicholas Martin make the argument that consuming art sarcastically is morally wrong, that bad reviews can be fatal, and that people who put themselves out there deserve a participation trophy and a standing ovation. This medicine would be easier to swallow if the film didn’t ask us to laugh at her in the first place.
‘Florence Foster Jenkins’
Rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material. 1:50. Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Nicholasville.