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Streep toes the line between heartbreak and hilarity in 'Florence Foster Jenkins'
Hugh Grant as St Clair Bayfield and Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins in Florence Foster Jenkins." - photo by Josh Terry
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS 3 stars Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg; PG-13 (brief suggestive material); in general release

It was about this time last year when Meryl Streep was strapping on leather pants and growling into a microphone as the titular middle-aged wanna-be rock star in Ricki and the Flash. This time around, Streep is taking on the music scene from a different angle, through a real-life laughingstock named Florence Foster Jenkins.

Jenkins has something in common with most of us: She cant sing. But unlike most of us, Jenkins has the ambition to sing anyway and enough money to share her gift with a wide audience. But if you take a look between the lighthearted lines of director Stephen Frears Florence Foster Jenkins, youll find a heartbreaking portrait of a woman paired with a poignant message for our time.

Jenkins was a benefactor to the arts back in the 1940s, an ex-piano teacher and the founder of the Verdi Club in New York City. When we meet her in 1944, shes somewhere around 70, suffering the effects of a decades-long bout with syphilis (her first husband was unfaithful), but doing her best to promote local musical performances.

Ultimately, promoting isnt enough. In a fit of inspiration, she announces to her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) that she wants to start up vocal lessons again, and soon after that, decides to take the stage for her first public performance in decades. Based on her rehearsals, a humiliating disaster is imminent.

Bayfield does what he can to protect his wife from the awful reality of her voice. He hires a voice teacher (David Haig) who showers Jenkins with praise and pays the accompanist (Simon Helberg) enough to keep his mouth shut. For her performance, Bayfield only invites people who will play along with his wifes ego trip or have enough hearing problems not to know the difference.

Bayfield has experience being duplicitous. Hes Jenkins husband in name only, and living with his mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson) across town. But when his wifes ambition leads to cutting a record and putting on a show for 3,000 veterans at Carnegie Hall, even he cant shield Florence from her rendezvous with cold, hard reality.

When Jenkins sings, you laugh. Its almost impossible to recognize any of the songs shes singing, and Streeps delivery sounds like a backing track to one of the Planet of the Apes films. But you feel guilty as you laugh because it is obvious the only reason anyone is interested in shielding Jenkins from the truth is because that would threaten the financial gravy train.

Its difficult to connect to a character as eccentric as Jenkins, and most people would cringe at the notion of identifying with Bayfield. So Frears gives us Cosme McMoon, Jenkinss accompanist, as the sympathetic conscience of the film. McMoon has a kind enough heart to see what is happening, even if he isnt quite brave enough to do anything about it, and Helberg does an excellent job of reflecting the films humor while reminding us of its tragedy.

As good as Streep is as Jenkins, audiences should stick around for the closing credits, where authentic tracks from Jenkinss record betray a special kind of nave innocence and sincerity in the womans voice that's even more moving than what Streep puts onscreen.

The legend of Florence Foster Jenkins may be rooted in the 1940s, but Frears film feels like a subtle commentary on a social media-driven 21st century where the lust for ones 15 minutes of fame reflects Jenkins misguided determination to share herself with the world. If youve already been wishing you could get up the nerve to throw your smartphone in the nearest lake, this movie might help with your wind up. Florence Foster Jenkins is a hoot, but its also the saddest comedy youll see this year.

Florence Foster Jenkins is rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material; running time: 110 minutes.
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