Florence Foster Jenkins is one of those “must watch” movies if you like to be somewhat informed while watching the Globes or Oscars. It’s a true story set in the 1940’s about a lady who is a horrible singer but the crowds love her. I know half the country will be completely uninterested in a movie like this but the truth is anything Hugh Grant does is downright enjoyable. Then add in that weird little guy who plays Wolowitz from Big Bang Theory (Simon Helberg) and that should give you enough reason to consider checking it out. Oh and the small fact that it holds four of the top Golden Globe nominations doesn’t hurt either.(Best Picture in a Comedy, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor).
The trailer sells it as a happy and inspirational story about a woman pursuing her dream despite her lack of talent. Just living life and having fun!! Hooray!! To hell with the haters! And that’s exactly how the movie goes.. except not at all. Yeah it eventually becomes a feel good story but only after 90 minutes of tense and comical distortion of reality. It’s a story that is so much more complex and dark than it leads on and for that I loved it.
Spoilers: The big difference between the trailer and the movie is the revelation that Florence has no idea how bad of a singer she is. Not only does she believe she’s a great singer, but that she’s one of the top performers in NYC, maybe even the world. Why? Because her husband, St Clair, has created this distorted reality for her through an incredibly intricate web of lies and bribes. Why? Because he loves her so much and can’t bear to see her sad, obviously, which is a totally normal and sane husband thing to do. How does this work? Well Florence is apparently crazy rich. Like money falling from the sky rich. St. Clair (which is an awful name and I hate typing it because I feel like I’m talking about an island) has a system. He pays off newspaper critics to write rave reviews about her private shows. Tickets are only available to members of their own “music people” club or whatever. This could have used some more attention, but “music people” did not mean patrons of Carnegie Hall or lovers of fine opera… it was a collection of old ladies who were hard of hearing or wealthy new-money people who were looking to get themselves higher standing in their society. AKA people who hear bad music and think it’s great because they’re told it’s great so who are they to disagree.. It really was an impressive scheme that seemed to be going well until it all fell apart.
The trailer made note of Florence being sick but they didn’t say what. When its revealed that she has late stage syphilis everything begins to make sense. But her husband living in another apartment with another woman is still a bit of a stretch though. Yes he loves her, but he married her while knowing about her disease. Was it for the money? Maybe originally but it’s clear he has real feelings for her even though he still goes on “golf vacations” with his girlfriend so that whole dynamic was confusing to say the least. But anyways, her disease is slowly killing her. She has nerve damage in her hand and apparently some pretty stunning legions on her back. The reason I say things started making sense after we find out its syphilis is because that disease rots the brain during it’s late stages. She did not see or hear the world in the way it actually was. When she heard herself singing she only heard perfect notes. This was sad and it really made you empathize with her. When reality finally hit in the form of a NY Post review, it was a crushing blow that led to her death. We finally get to see her perspective of her own performance when she’s on her death bed, and it’s everything you’d expect from a veteran professional performer with years of experience. So the audience is left in the end with a dying Florence and an urge to blame St Clair for creating this false world that made her into a public laughingstock. That may be true, but the doctor said he had never seen a lethal case like hers last so long. Maybe all the lies and fake reviews kept her spirit alive far longer than it was supposed to? That’s one way to look at it if you want to be a glass-half-full type of person. Unfortunately I am not that kind of guy. I think St Clair was a coward who didn’t know how to confront a situation and instead threw money at it to go away.
One last note: My favorite character was Cosme and I think he has a great shot at winning Best Supporting Actor, but a close second was this lady:
She was all of us. If I’m putting on my critic pants I’ll tell you she represented us as the audience and carried us through the movie. When we first met her she made it clear she didn’t give a fuck about Florence or her singing. I think she actually said those exact words. Then she’s dying in the aisle laughing at how preposterous this whole fiasco is. After that she somehow ends up at the party where we get to see the real St Clair and Cosme and get a bigger sense of what’s really going on in the movie. And finally in the big performance she did what we all wanted to do and that was yell at all the drunk idiots for laughing at this poor woman on stage. Her character was a great tool used by the filmmakers to convey what we the audience was thinking without removing us from the scene. Loved her.