There’s a great Mr. Show sketch about “Imminent Death Syndrome” (IDS), a disease in which the afflicted are on the brink of death for as long as 80-100 years. And because they’re always about to die, those around them have to treat their endeavors with the utmost praise and encouragement. A music student strumming through bum chords? Guitar god. A physician who lops a man’s leg off at the knee? Best doctor ever. According to Mr. Show, IDS accounts for the careers of Juliette Lewis, Anne Rice, Clarence Thomas, the cartoonists responsible for Ziggy and The Family Circus, and Quentin Tarantino (the actor, not the director).
Florence Foster Jenkins may not have been an IDS sufferer, but in Stephen Frears’ soppy biopic, she just so happens to have a terminal illness that leaves her perpetually on the brink of death. A wealthy socialite and generous patron of the arts, Jenkins firmly believes herself to be a beautiful singer, despite an ear-splitting voice that sounds like a duck and cat being strangled simultaneously. And she’s surrounded by sycophants who are in no hurry to disabuse her of this notion, because they like her and they like her money and there’s no harm in supporting her delusions. After all, she could die imminently.
Frears and his terrific cast make it easy to buy into their well-meaning fantasy. As Jenkins, Meryl Streep channels a robust obliviousness that only the cruelest killjoy would seek to puncture, because her passion for music and theater is unparalleled. In 1940s Manhattan, with World War II raging overseas, Jenkins’ fortune props up multiple venues and performances troupes and they, in turn, allow her to make largely wordless, ceremonial appearances on stage. Her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who’s been nursing his own set of delusions as an actor, is her most devoted champion, but their marriage is also rooted in fantasy. He leads a double life, retiring every night to a separate apartment with his much younger girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson).
When Jenkins gets the idea to develop her mellifluous voice, Bayfield accommodates her with daily vocal lessons and a young pianist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), to accompany her screeching. At $150 a day, McMoon will happily grit his teeth through session after agonizing session, but he soon falls under her thrall, too, and works diligently to support her delusions. When Jenkins impulsively cuts a record as a gift to friends, it winds up getting some radio play and turns her into such a so-bad-it’s-good sensation that she books a performance at Carnegie Hall. There to ensure the impending catastrophe is New York Post critic Earl Wilson (Christian McKay), who most assuredly is not on Jenkins’ payroll.
Florence Foster Jenkins takes its one joke further than expected. Frears wants the audience to be charmed by Jenkins’ enthusiastic braying and Streep’s performance makes that possible, as her voice rises and dives to heretofore unknown octaves. Grant makes such an affable ringmaster that Bayfield’s casual duplicity can be forgiven, because the role he’s playing for his wife seems more than mere performance. But it’s Helberg who steals the show as a would-be piano virtuoso who grits his teeth and smiles through this lucrative but career-wounding gig. Helberg is a regular on the Big Bang Theory, but his work here recalls his wonderful turn as “The Junior Rabbi” in A Serious Man, who argues for the presence of HaShem in the synagogue parking lot. That same blind faith carries over to McMoon.
Yet Florence Foster Jenkins bends toward a markedly uncritical, once-over-lightly treatment that’s entirely on board with the deception. Not a thought is given to the privilege that allows Jenkins to transcend merit or the pitfalls of someone living in an affirmative bubble, protected from basic truths about themselves. In fact, when Wilson comes along with a pin to burst that bubble, his honesty makes him a villain; here’s a rare film where a character is viewed as a scoundrel for refusing to accept a bribe. In the most generous light, Florence Foster Jenkins could be seen as an analog to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, a tribute to the artistic spirit and a rebuke to the snickering elites who mock the flagrantly terrible. But the film’s scolding tone, combined with the sentimental gloss of its ending, leaves an aftertaste that sours the screwball fizz of its cheerier moments. That’s the problem with IDS: It makes everyone a victim.