“FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS” My rating: B+ (Opening wide on Aug. 12)
110 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
The human capacity for self-delusion has long been fodder for dramatists. Usually it’s the stuff of satire or tragedy.
“Florence Foster Jenkins,” though, has it both ways.
Written by Nicholas Martin (his first feature after a long career in Brit TV), directed by Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “Philomena,” “The Queen” ) and starring Meryl Streep in a prime slice of Oscar bait, this real-life yarn encourages us to laugh uproariously at the human foibles on display but sends us away in a somber mood.
It’s the rare film that discovers dignity in foolishness.
The title character was a real person, a New York heiress (1868-1944) who became famous — or infamous — for her out-of-tune renditions of operatic arias.
Frears’ film unfolds in the last year of Jenkins’ life. Our guide to Florence’s oddball world is Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), a scrawny, struggling pianist who as the film begins is hired as Florence’s accompanist and discovers to his horror that he’s backing one of the century’s worst voices.
What’s more, he’s now immersed in Florence’s bizarre household.
Streep’s Florence has more money than good sense. A lover of classical music, she has devoted much of her fortune to private recitals at which she is the main attraction.
A zaftig dowager (Streep wears a convincing fat suit) with alarming taste in fashion and the stage presence of an eager child, Florence honestly believes that she has a great voice.
This delusion is encouraged by the blue-haired biddies who are her devoted fans and by her common-law husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield (an excellent Hugh Grant).
Bayfield is a failed Shakespearean actor — one of those hammy thesps whose delivery is all about the words but rarely about their meaning — who for three decades has been sponging off the Jenkins fortune.