Saturday, 7 May 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep is a talentless old bag who surrounds herself with sycophants, idiots, and paid-for yes men. The syphilis she contracted at an early age has addled her brain. She has been celibate for decades.... the new film Florence Foster Jenkins, a historical comedy-drama starring Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins, a famously terrible popular singer of the early twentieth century. At a young age Jenkins aspired to be a pianist, but the syphilis she contracted from her first husband ruined her physical coordination so instead she turned to singing. As a singer she was uniquely awful, but she lived in a bubble where she never had to face up to her incompetence, and by middle-age she was irreparably damaged.

Aren't we all, eh? By middle-age we are all irreparably damaged. My only constant friend has been the bottle. The bottle has never let me down. It doesn't care if I don't shave or if my socks don't match. The tutors Jenkins hired were happy to take the money and go through the motions of helping her, even though she was a lost cause. After years of obscurity she came to the attention of the wider public very late in life. A recording of her voice made its way to the radio, and in 1944 she was given the chance to play New York's Carnegie Hall. The concert sold out.

Everybody in the audience knew she was awful but no-one wanted to spoil the joke, and thus the postmodern age was born. History books say that postmodernism began in the 1970s but they're wrong. It began in 1944 with Florence Foster Jenkins. While the civilised world was engaged in a genocidal world war, Jenkins demolished the foundations of Western art. It took a few years for the building to topple, but eventually it did, and it is but a short step from Jenkins to the likes of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.

Alas Jenkins was unable to capitalise on her fame, because two days after the concert she suffered a heart attack; a month later she died. She was 76 and had not been expected to live that long. Like The Shaggs and Wesley Willis she is remembered as a pure spirit in an impure world. What if she was right, and we are wrong? History portrays her as a guileless naif who meant no harm rather than a vain, conniving witch, and because of this people remember her fondly today.

Florence, Italy

But what about the film? Is it any good? It's slight. The comedy is mannered and low-key, the drama is perfunctory, and on the whole it comes across as the kind of filler that would have entertained audiences in the 1940s. The film's big drama sequence involves one character's attempt to buy up and destroy every copy of the New York Post, which is the kind of plot element that belongs in an old television sitcom. The film has no bad language, no nudity, and its vision of New York in 1944 is antiseptically clean.

It was actually shot in the United Kingdom, a cost-saving measure that almost works; sadly Jenkins visuals have neither the grit of Taxi Driver or the polished fakery of One From the Heart. The film is instead just bland. On a visual level Jenkins is a technically accomplished television movie. It will not be nominated for any technical awards. Streep has won several Oscars but probably won't win anything for Jenkins. The film isn't weighty enough to work as Oscar bait.

I can see how a serious, substantial film about Florence Foster Jenkins might go down. It would be three hours long, in black and white, and it would be relentlessly bleak and downbeat. Jenkins was a lonely, disabled old woman who was exploited by everybody around her. She had personal charm but no-one in the film seems to genuinely love her. Jenkins inherited a lot of money from her father, and I imagine that throughout her life she never once met someone who cared about her as a person. But isn't that true of everybody? It has certainly been my experience. Alcohol doesn't come to me because I love it, it comes to me because I pay for it. Jenkins had a choice between living in a fantasy world, or confronting the reality of her own impending ill-health and death, with only fakers and conmen for company. In that respect a film of Jenkins' life might resemble Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and that mental image is more interesting than Florence Foster Jenkins. At times the film seems to be willing to go down this route - we have glimpses of how Foster perceives herself - but it pulls back almost immediately.

The film also stars Hugh Grant. He is a failed actor more famous for the company he keeps than for his own accomplishments. In real life, as in his films, Hugh Grant always been overshadowed by women; he plays his role as someone who understands he is trapped in a gilded cage, but is prepared to put up with this because why the hell not. He has the air of a man who believes he will be Edward VIII one day. Does he really love Jenkins? His mask only slips on one occasion, but even then it just reveals another mask. Grant is superb in a certain type of role and is perfectly cast in the film. It's a shame that he is never given better material to work with.

Florence again - Olympus XA, Kodak Portra 160

The third leading role is played by Simon Helberg. He is an inexperienced, shy, but talented pianist. His character arc illustrates the film's biggest flaw; he begins as an inexperienced, shy, but talented pianist and remains so throughout the film. He has a mass of tics and is essentially the comic relief, but he doesn't change. None of the characters change. The film is simply a linear, uncomplicated portrayal of Jenkins' last few months on Earth, with no more ambition than that. There is a brief suggestion that Helberg's character might find love, and the film continually implies that he is a player of the pink oboe, but this goes nowhere. John Sessions pops up in a tiny role as a fat doctor. Whereas Meryl Streep wears a fat suit, John Sessions took the method approach to the problem of playing an overweight person. I admire his dedication.

The only other actor who stands out is Nina Arianda, who plays a blonde dame with classy gams. She's a massive stereotype but plays the role with gusto, and also her character looks fun to hang out with and I wish she had been in the film more. Rebecca Ferguson has the thankless role of Grant's girlfriend, who drinks heavily but comes across as a square and boring, which is odd because none of the alcoholics I have met were square and boring, at least not while drinking. I never knew what they were like when they were sober. They didn't like themselves when they were sober. That's why they drank. Sadly, some of them didn't like themselves when they were drunk, at which point where do you go? What is left when you realise that your dreams were shallow and stupid; when you realise that dreams are just flashes in the brain when you unconscious? Just flashes in a piece of meat.

The more I think about Jenkins the less it impresses me. The dramatic moments feel fake. At one point Jenkins is mocked by the audience, but an unexpected ally emerges who silences the critics; it felt fake. As if the filmmakers expected us to stand up and cheer as in the finale of Crocodile Dundee, but they didn't want to get their hands dirty with cheap Hollywood sentiment. Jenkins is a British film, and like all British films it has an air of sneering, unearned superiority about it, an unwillingness to descend to the emotional manipulation of Hollywood films, a sense that it deserves respect not because of its actions but simply because it is the member of an exclusive club, or the seventh earl of somewhere-or-other. This might be justified if Jenkins was unadulterated cinematic greatness, but instead it is empty and bland, like The Mission or The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill or Hear My Song or any number of boring empty failed British attempts to create prestige drama.

The glimpses we have of Jenkins' mental delusions of grandeur are hamfistedly unsubtle. And one thing bothered me. The film's villain is a reporter for the New York Post. The film is full of mentally weak people who are willing to be bribed into silence; the reporter is the only honest, incorruptible music lover in the entire film. He refuses to be bribed into silence, and yet he is portrayed as the villain. Grant's character attempts to intimidate his editor into having the review spiked, and the film doesn't have a problem with this. Imagine a version of All the President's Men in which Woodward and Bernstein are portrayed as a pair of humourless killjoys, and Nixon is a harmless old man whose fantasies made a lot of people happy, or at the very least entertained a lot of people.

Not Florence

That would actually be an interesting film. Of course, I'm exaggerating for dramatic effect, but a smarter and more interesting film of Jenkins' life would have dealt with this. Jenkins' life was a slow-building tragedy about a sad old woman who was exploited by everybody around her, until eventually the pillar of lies they built fell apart and killed her. Her singing was awful and her self-delusion was funny, but her life was not a comedy. Imagine a film of Wesley Willis' life that glossed over the abuse he suffered as a child and his paranoid schizophrenia. Even Rain Man dealt more frankly with the tragic aspects of its main characters lives than Jenkins.

The film suggests that the pursuit of a dream is worth dying for, but Jenkins' dream was a delusion; the dream she chased was the product of mental illness, and again this is a more interesting take on the material than Florence Foster Jenkins. I can't tell if writer Nicholas Martin or director Stephen Frears thought of all this and decided that it wouldn't fit in a crowd-pleasing historical drama. Martin is a television writer and Frears is a prolific, anonymous director mostly of historical dramas, who occasionally finds himself as the credited director on films that win awards. I assume they were hired because they could bring the material in on time and budget as cheaply as possible.

The film has one or two decent lines, neither of which I can remember, and one good shot that makes use of the cinema screen (Nina Arianda's character appears in a hallway while some drama goes on in the foreground), but apart from that the script and cinematography are anonymous. For a film set in 1940's New York none of the dialogue feels particularly of the period, but then again real-life 1944 probably didn't sound like the films of that era.

I'm waffling now. The drink has started to write my words for me go away. Florence Foster Jenkins is a perfunctory, dull film with solid performances from a couple of actors who can phone in this kind of thing. There's no reason to see it at the cinema. I went because this weekend it is summer in the United Kingdom, the end.