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While Frears’ film hits theaters in Blighty this spring, U.S. viewers must wait until the tail en...

Film Review: Meryl Streep in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins

By 13:15:00

While Frears’ film hits theaters in Blighty this spring, U.S. viewers must wait until the tail end of summer — narrowly preceding the fall-fest influx of prestige fare, though presumably with an eye to launching Streep in the awards derby. Tickled as Jenkins no doubt would have been by such gilded possibilities, “Florence Foster Jenkins” is an audience picture first and foremost: one wholly sympathetic to its eponymous subject’s delusional drive to delight crowds with or without the requisite artistry. Where “Marguerite” wryly satirized the class privilege and bourgeois obsequiousness that enabled the celebrity of its fictionalized protagonist, “Jenkins” goes distinctly easy on her addled vanity, and even on the moneyed manipulations of St. Clair Bayfield (a top-form Hugh Grant), her craftier husband and manager.

Rather, Martin’s fast-and-loose script reserves most of its animus for anyone attempting to halt the tone-deaf diva’s progress through the concert-hall of 1940s Manhattan — making a toxic villain of New York Post critic Earl Wilson (a flamboyantly sneering Christian McKay), who dared to suggest her throttled-nightingale trill was, well, for the birds. Is buying acclaim morally acceptable if audience and performer alike are enjoying themselves? Is it charitable or cruelly condescending to applaud heartfelt ineptitude in a spirit of gleeful irony? These are questions with which the film, perhaps inadvertently, leaves viewers, though it’s having far too much fun with her to address them: Rather like Jenkins’ own cronies, the filmmakers are tamed into submission by her gauche gusto.

And why wouldn’t they be, when said gusto is filtered through the indefatigable performing presence of Streep? Once hailed as American cinema’s most meticulous thespian technician, the 20-time Oscar nominee has, if not at any cost to her eerie knack for verisimilitude, broadened into something of a high-volume barnstormer: Whether playing Margaret Thatcher or “Mamma Mia!,” her latter-day work is largely defined by its vivid, palpable eagerness to entertain. And while some have complained that Streep has a monopoly on plum screen roles for women her age, that very rafter-reaching enthusiasm makes her an ideal fit for Jenkins, even if incompetence can hardly come easily to her. (Viewers should know well by now that the star can more than capably hold a tune.) Streep certainly has a ball mimicking the scarcely human strangulations of Jenkins’ vocal technique, though her characterization skates graciously shy of belittling burlesque: There’s an empathetic ardor for performance at work here, one that deftly coaxes even bewildered viewers into her corner.

Frears gifts his star — with whom he has somehow never before collaborated, despite their mutually productive, down-for-whatever work ethic — with a dream of a movie-star entrance, as she’s lowered haphazardly from the ceiling in Jenkins’ signature tinselly angel wings and a torrent of beige chiffon. She’s introduced as the climactic star of a ropey supper-club variety show directed by St. Clair, a failed Shakespearean actor more aware than his wife of his creative shortcomings. He’s also sufficiently protective of what might kindly be termed Jenkins’ unorthodox talent to curb her vocal contributions to the show, though when she bullishly insists on staging a solo concert, he’s quick to her aid, lavishly bribing Metropolitan Opera director Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) to act as her fawning vocal coach, and hiring baffled young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg, contributing his deft brand of dumbstruck aggravation from TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”) to accompany her tortured warbling.

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