Remember when Meryl Streep was the queen of drama? When any movie in which she shed a tear was guaranteed to garner her an Oscar nomination, and often the prize itself? (A running joke in my family come Oscar time has always been, "Why was Meryl Streep nominated again? Oh yeah. Because she was in a movie.")
But lately her career has changed course, in much the same way her equally lauded male contemporary Robert DeNiro's has: They're both starring in a lot of comedies. Of course that's where the similarity basically ends, since Streep's comedies have been consistently better than DeNiro's although I will defend The Intern until my dying day.
Florence Foster Jenkins is the latest Meryl Streep summer comedy, and it's a pleasant, and at times touching little gem based on a true story. Streep is the titular Florence, a very rich patron of the arts with an undying passion for music. Once a child prodigy pianist, after an illness left her with nerve damage, her piano playing was replaced with singing, for which she had considerably less talent.
With nothing but time, money, and a love for music that drives every aspect of her life, Florence decides to perform a concert, and hires aspiring composer Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) as her piano accompanist. Helberg is best known for his role on TV's The Big Bang Theory, but I think his talents shine brighter here. Much of the movie's comedy depends on his reactions to Florence and her voice, which he states "defies medical science," and he manages to get a laugh every time.
Hugh Grant costars as St. Clair Bayfield, Florence's husband. He's the perfect counterpoint to Helberg's incredulous pianist, a husband who is both completely supportive of Florence's aspirations, and fiercely protective. There's more to their marriage than first appears, and director Stephen Frears does a good job of balancing the sadness inherent in their story with the very simple comedy that comes from hearing someone singing badly. (If there was an Oscar for Best Bad Singing By Someone Who Can Actually Sing Well, Streep would get it, and you can learn more about her preparation for the role in her recent interview on Fresh Air.)
Of course it's not Florence's talent that gets her a night at Carnegie Hall, it's her money, and the movie's closest thing to a villain comes in the form of a theater critic who refuses to lie about her lack of talent. And in many ways, his criticism is absolutely right — her show is a gross display of privilege.
But there's also art that, because of the sheer optimism, devotion, and blind belief of the artist, is immune to any kind of criticism, and in fact defies it. The films of Ed Wood come to mind, or the music of Daniel Johnston. And Florence Foster Jenkins certainly deserves a place among those artists, whose love for their craft outshines their abilities, and results in a type of human production that people come to love anyway, blemishes and all.