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Though based on a real-life 1940s socialite, historical dramedy Florence Foster Jenkins perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the social media age, where our collective demand for accolades is largely divorced from whether we’ve done something to deserve them.
Florence (Meryl Streep) is an amateur opera singer without an ounce of vocal ability. Thanks to her wealth and social position, she plays to (seemingly) adoring crowds and wins gushing reviews from sold-out performances. The moral quandary the story poses: Should we too applaud Florence’s passion despite her ineptitude, or throw in with the pharisaical critics who weigh her voice and find it wanting? Ninety-five percent of the movie appears to argue for the former.
This is reinforced by Florence’s relationship with her husband, St. Clair (Hugh Grant), who greases half of Manhattan’s palms to protect his wife’s delusions. Theirs is a marriage of “understanding,” including a mistress on the side (whose revealing form under a bedsheet, as well as a bit of language, accounts for the PG-13 rating). Yet their sexless devotion, as St. Clair repeatedly insists, is simply a different form of love. They’re happy, so who’s to condemn?
When Florence tells her new pianist, “I warn you, I train very hard. Sometimes as much as an hour a day,” it feels like a subtle joke on the viewer. And later, though a New York Post reporter seems cast as a parade-raining villain, his accusation that applauding Florence makes a mockery of great art rings a little too true.
Streep oozes bravura when she confronts her lack of talent: “They may say I couldn’t sing, but they can’t say I didn’t sing.” This feelings-over-facts philosophy is seen on campuses all over the country. Yet there’s an inescapable sense of sadness that all of Florence’s charm and resources are wasted in chasing after wind.
On second glance, perhaps director Stephen Frears is playing the St. Clair to our Florence. Telling the audience what we want to hear, all the while wincing at our self-delusion.