‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ — the problem of Funny Meryl

This week I watched Postcards from the Edge for the first time since the mid nineties. In its original release, the studio promoted the Mike Nichols picture as a Funny Meryl Streep Movie, a chapter in her career that also produced She-Devil.

Not only could Streep “do” accents, she could smoke, laugh, sing, wear a cop uniform, and toss her hair in six different kinds of smug. A permafrost of glibness keeps complexities from hissing to the surface, like many a Mike Nichols picture. Twenty-six years is time enough for hype to evaporate; it does some things well, like generating sensual sparks between Streep and a Dennis Quaid cool with the idea of not wearing clothes a lot, and others not so well, like depicting rehab with a dishwashing liquid commercial brightness and treating its Shirley MacLaine subplot with an odd sort of caution. On the occasion of Carrie Fisher’s death, Ned Raggett reevaluated it too. I recommend watching it, though — an essential product of the Poppy Bush Interzone, a period of American culture with which I have a fascination. Hollywood once made movies like Postcards from the Edge for adults, for better or worse.

In the last decade, Streep has reprised Funny Meryl, starring in The Devil Wears Prada, Julie and Julia, mom fave It’s Complicated, and kneeslappers like The Iron Lady and August: Osage County. Watching these movies revived the echt self-consciousness of the late eighties run: do we, to quote Choderlos de Laclos, applaud the tenor for clearing his throat? From the way the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Biases and, to a lesser degree, the public acclaims her, you’d think she was Carole Lombard, rewarded with nineteen fewer Oscar nominations. Whether Florence Foster Jenkins is any good is beside the point: Meryl Streep stars and gives a comic performance, keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle. Playing a real person who was talent-free except at imposing a punishing good cheer fits latter-day Streep as appropriately as a fourth Oscar.

Stephen Frears, whose directing method these days elides the differences between watching humans interacting and going out for coffee while the camera rolls, sets up a series of tableaux in which the Susan Alexander opera rehearsal scenes from Citizen Kane tugs at audience memories; after one grueling session in Orson Welles’ film, the bug-eyed voice instructor Signor Matiste barks, “Some people can sing. Some can’t.” The same goes for accents. I don’t know what Streep essays in FFJ; the heiress is supposed to be New York-raised but sounds like Eleanor Roosevelt imitating Margaret Dumont. With the encouragement of husband and poor Shakespearean actor, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, transformation into Roger Moore complete), Jenkins resumes singing lessons with pianist Cosmé McMoon, played by The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg as a concatenation of giggles,  Gene Wilder-isms, and repressed queerness (when a cute punk, pouring McMoon a martini at a party, lays a hand on his shoulder, Frears, who also directed Prick Up Your Ears and My Beautiful Laundrette, cuts away with what I can only describe as frightened haste). It doesn’t matter: whenever she opens her mouth to emit what are supposed to be notes, the crowd loses it. St. Clair, who’s got a young chippie (Rebecca Ferguson) with whom he can escape when he’s had enough, is put to the test when a recording of Jenkins singing at her private club gets on the radio. Where he once had to cajole McMoon into keeping his well-remunerated gig, now he watches as Jenkins writes lyrics to an original McMoon composition that is greeted as a comic masterpiece by listeners.

Nicholas Martin’s script shows more plot wrinkles than a pair of unwashed jeans, to which Frears responds with either readymade sentiment or by swatting complications aside. When Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead appear at Jenkins’ Carnegie Hall farrago, there isn’t even a camera movement suggesting that McMoon understands the game they’re playing in public, nor does Frears savor the irony of two artists playing at being a couple attending a performance by a woman who thinks she can sing. But his balancing act — poking fun at Jenkins’ delusions while appreciating her spirit — crumbles as soon as Jenkins confides to McMoon that she herself once had a promising career as a concert pianist. Why, she even performed for the President! As Jenkins demonstrates this heretofore unshared prowess, Danny Cohen’s camera pulls back as if as awestruck as the young man. It’s an echo of what a brad at Jenkins’ Virgil Club said while admonishing the crowd: “The dame can sing her heart out!”

She’s terrible, but she works hard!. That’s Florence Foster Jenkins‘ message, repeated in schoolrooms across the land. Streep understands it too. Boy, does she get it. Her terrible singing is as soullessly perfect as her real singing in Postcards from the Edge. If she’s unconvincing playing Jenkins, she’s worse when Frears elbows her into showing The Humanity Within. An embodiment of liberal forthrightness, an avatar for actresses getting parts over forty, a national treasure even, Streep has traded the sangfroid for an ecumenical warmth, regardless of the target. Pauline Kael used to say that Streep was at her most effective when her aloofness and projection of intensity meshed with a character of similar bent. In Florence Foster Jenkins and other recent roles, Streep’s newfound heartiness meshes, incongruously, with the woman she’s playing. It reminds me of watching Anthony Quinn in the last quarter century of his career: as indifferent to embarrassment as a front loader. His declamatory gestures, girth, and inapt comedy adduced his humanness, and it was gross. Hollywood wants Meryl Streep, raw or cooked. This plush Ed Wood variant is a reminder of the dangers of casting Ed Wood as the lead.

GRADE:   C

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