Give Meryl Streep her due: She's mastered drama and comedy, musicals and various accents. In her latest film, the multiple Oscar-winner has even crushed an unexpected skill — singing very poorly indeed.
As the title character in "Florence Foster Jenkins," Streep has been asked to warble operettas like a duck being strangled by a garrote. What comes out of her mouth is well beyond an "American Idol" "pitchy." It's ludicrous and grotesque and very funny. (A soundtrack is available in case you need the worst ever possible holiday gift.)
Inspired by the true story of the tune-challenged American socialite, the film is almost as tone deaf as its heroine. It champions artificiality in an era of authenticity and seems sympathetic to the clueless bubble that vast amounts of money can create.
Jenkins is often celebrated as the worst opera singer ever, an unlikely musical star who emerged in the 1940s, despite her lack of talent. The film depicts her as willfully self-delusional to her own failings as her husband pays off critics and hires compliant audiences to clap politely while she screeches.
Streep, of course, fills her character with emotion, humanity and need, but director Stephen Frears and writer Nicholas Martin haven't decided whether their movie is slapstick or tragedy. And they frustratingly haven't answered the riddle of Jenkins — did she really go to her grave blissfully unaware that she was truly terrible or was she somehow in on the joke? There are clues for both interpretations in the film.
With a cipher as its heroine, the script naturally turns to explore the people who helped create her illusion, led by a marvelous Hugh Grant as Jenkins' endearing husband. Grant is unshakable and charming in his wife's defense but shows chinks in his armor when she insists on playing Carnegie Hall, perhaps a ruse too far.
The film also includes great turns by Simon Helberg of "The Big Bang Theory," who plays Jenkins' conflicted piano accompanist, and Nina Arianda, who initially recognizes that the empress has no clothes but inexplicably switches to be her biggest cheerleader.
Adding to the film's lack of authenticity is the sleight-of-hands in its settings, with London's Hammersmith Apollo standing in for Carnegie Hall and the city's Park Lane Hotel supposed to mimic Manhattan's Ritz Carlton, where Jenkins lived. The filmmakers seem pretty pleased with how they made locations thousands of miles from New York into the backdrop for an American story.
"Florence Foster Jenkins" thrashes about for a central theme — loyalty versus ambition, passion versus skill, truth versus happiness — but never lands on one. Unlike the recent French film "Marguerite" that was drawn from Jenkins' story and satirized class privilege, this one wants to say simply that it's OK if sheer desire — and gobs of cash — make your dreams come true, even without talent or sweat.
That it uses a wealthy heiress to make such a populist statement is somehow fitting in this election year when a real estate billionaire who has never held public office is running for president of the United States. Well, at least we don't have to hear him sing.
What: "Florence Foster Jenkins." Directed by Stephen Frears. A Paramount Pictures, Pathe and BBC Films release
With: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Nina Arianda
Star rating (out of four):
MPAA rating: PG-13 — some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers — for "brief suggestive material"
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes
Playing at: Beacon Cinema (Pittsfield) and Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington)