Set in high-brow Manhattan circa 1944, we observe scenes from The Verdi Club, a music appreciation society. The event is emceed by St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who also breaks up the singing by reciting Shakespearean monologues. Florence is first seen as part of the visual scenery, and perk of being a benefactor for the arts.
Given her generous contributions, most people tell Florence what she wants to hear. When she announces that she wishes to sing, St. Clair makes arrangements for music lessons. To accompany Florence and her music teacher, St. Clair hires pianist Cosme’ McMoon (Simon Helberg), a young man who is serious about his craft. Although he is paid very well, Cosme’ feels conflicted about supporting Florence’s total lack of talent.
Although her supposed sycophants are snickering behind her back, Florence believes the flattery she receives. As the film progresses, we witness the web of deceit that grows to absurd levels. There is an old Broadway question that asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer is “Practice, practice, practice.” With no talent but plenty of practice, Florence proves this Broadway adage.
Predictably, Streep absorbs the title role and gives a full performance. Like any Giuseppe Verdi opera, there is so much pain in this film, yet Streep shares the character’s salvation through music. Playing against type from his Big Bang Theory character, Simon Helberg gives a transformative performance of a mouse who becomes a man. Balancing the tightrope between love and being a cad, Hugh Grant provides his most interesting performance in 15 years.
With directorial credits including Dangerous Liaisons, Mrs. Henderson presents, Philomena and The Queen, Stephen Frears knows how to tell an interesting story about backstage life. It takes an experienced craftsman to tell an entertaining narrative with humor, while providing a sense of haute Manhattan culture.
As the children return to school this week, the motion picture industry will be releasing more serious fare. Florence Foster Jenkins won’t appeal to The Suicide Squad or Sausage Party ticket buyers, but this Meryl Streep/Stephen Frears film will be talked about during Oscar time.