“How could we not start with a soup? There’d be a riot!”
Passion, drive, devotion. These are qualities that can make an audience fall in love with a character. Ignorance, gluttony, waste. These aren’t.
There is a slice of society severely undeserved by cinema, and it’s not children. The over-40s demographic is one of the hungriest and fastest-growing, but it is feeding on Best, Exotic scraps. To badly generalise, older adults are willing to spend more money on trips to the cinema and have not the want, nor the ability, to illegally stream. Sitting in a theater hall surrounded by this demographic, it truly did feel like a trip to the theater. People had dressed up, bought alcoholic beverages and didn’t feel the compulsion to graze on Skittles throughout the performance.
For this crowd, Florence Foster Jenkins seemed the perfect spice. It had a heart-throb from their generation, a nostalgic setting and the effervescence Meryl Streep. What could go wrong? Ignorance, gluttony, waste, that’s what.
Florence is introduced as an eccentric. Yet, she does not turn out to be Lady in the Van eccentric, but more Mortdecai eccentric. Self-obsessed, narrow-focused and unbending, Jenkins swirls a host of characters around her desires. She is charming, but it is through her idiocy that laughs arrive. She is pandered to, sheltered and her every whim, however wasteful, is accommodated. Big laughs erupt as she orders a bathtub full of potato salad for her guests, but in the World War setting, this extravagance felt gross.
Her self-indulgence is boundless, and we are encouraged to laugh at it. The central, and almost only, joke is her voice. It is that of a boiling kettle, but she is happily unaware. Her closest friends swoon around her, bathing her in compliments and sweet-nothings. Her strangled chords got the crowd going, laughing with a dangerous intensity.
Yet, like most of the humour here, the joke is on her. Be it her ignorance or her lack of ability, you are told to laugh at Florence Foster, just as her audience cackles at her performances. The first laugh is at the situation Simon Helberg’s McMoon has been dropped into, but all that follow are at the very real human who once was Florence Foster Jenkins.
A lesser performer than Streep would have made this outrageous from the off, but her everlasting quality gives the film credit for a while. Hugh Grant is as good as we’ve ever seen him as her carer/husband Sinclair, and his knowing eyes help balance the jokes’ acidity. However, not even a pair of wonderful performances can keep the joke from growing old. Each passing repetition draws a lesser reaction from its audience.
After happily baiting laughs at the lady’s expense for around an hour, the film then implores your sympathy for the character. These laughs are meant to turn to pity, as the woman doing what she loves, struggles to do so. But, after having laughed at the woman for an hour, it feels as if the film is telling you, the audience, off for having done as it instructed.
Eddie the Eagle held a balance with far greater delicacy. Eddie Edwards was always included in the joke, and his gleeful resilience shaped a charming and heartwarming tale. Foster Jenkins is outside of the joke, and her ignorance and inability is laughed at. She is not fighting back against naysayers like Eddie, she is facilitated in her ever desire through her financial connections. We are not left with a rousing story of bravery in the face of adversity, but one of a woman duped by those she loved, and loved her.
Sweet respite does arrive, but it is insufficient. We are told that by following her dream and loving her work that she was a brave and happy soldier. The real Florence may have been, but the Florence we are handed is much too easy to laugh at.
Header courtesy of finalreel.