If you're a retro movie lover make sure that "Florence Foster Jenkins" goes to the top of your must-see list. The acclaimed comedy is an old-fashioned film in the best sense of the term. In it Meryl Streep gives another truly inspired performances. In fact it's getting downright boring extolling her virtues as perhaps the finest screen actress we have today. Streep has a field day giving a tour-de-force performance as the titular character, a real-life New York eccentric who apparently had built a cult following that has lasted for decades. Set in the year 1944, we find Florence Foster Jenkins living a very comfortable life in her lush Manhattan apartment. She is catered to by her younger husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who acts as protector and mother hen over his emotionally and physically fragile wife. Florence suffers from a variety of serious health issues that has resulted in her marriage to St. Clair remaining chaste (he even resides in his own apartment.) Although Florence is his meal ticket to a life that allows him many luxuries, including dalliances with other women, St. Clair clearly adores his wife and oversees every aspect of her daily existence. This includes her obsession with opera music. Florence had a lifelong passion for it and dedicated her life to pursuing an operatic singing career. There was only one problem: she was the worst singer imaginable. Despite her passionate embrace of opera, Florence's renditions of these works inevitably resulted in her bellowing out barely recognizable, high-pitched assaults on the eardrums of anyone who had the misfortune of being within hearing range. However, Florence had one major ally in her quest: her bank account. A very wealthy woman, she was also a philanthropist who donated huge sums of money to the arts and New York's private clubs that pertained to the arts. Consequently, she was beloved by the relatively small number of people in this social circle who politely attended her "concerts" and enthusiastically applauded her efforts. Encouraged by the but insincere enthusiasm of her friends, Florence began to believe she was a truly great opera singer. All was well as long as her performances took place exclusively in front of such tolerant audiences where St. Clair could control every aspect of the show and pull enough strings to ensure she would always get a rousing reception.
The film begins with Florence's quest to hire a suitable pianist to help her with her daily auditions (such was her influence that some of the great names in music would tutor her privately). Florence settles on hiring Cosme McMoon (yes, that was his name), a nebbishy, shy young man (played by Simon Helberg) whose abilities as a virtuoso are unrecognized. Desperate for money, he cannot refuse St. Clair's generous salary offers (i.e bribes) to pretend that Florence is a great talent. He agrees and manages to ingratiate himself to her and grow fond and protective of her as well. Things go smoothly, though we do see that Florence is bravely struggling with a deteriorating medical condition. Alas, a major crisis emerges when Florence announces that she has rented Carnegie Hall and intends to give a concert there- and to invite on a gratis basis servicemen who are in New York on leave. St. Claire immediately recognizes the dilemma: up until now no critic has been able to review Florence's performances because they were all held at private venues. He knows all too well what awaits her when the press attends the performance at Carnegie Hall. The final section of the film shows her disastrous performance and St. Clair and Cosme's efforts to convince her that it was a triumph. However, they can only pull this off if they ensure that Florence does not have access to the reviews- and she determined to see them. This results in a frantic situation that approaches that of a farce in which extraordinary efforts are made to keep the bad news from the lovable lady.
"Florence Foster Jenkins" is a true gem of a movie, the kind they supposedly don't make any more. Everyone is dressed to the nines, sips champagne and engages in Noel Coward-like witty banter. Streep, Oscar-nominated for her role, is superb as ditzy would-be diva, accentuating her eccentricities but never allowing her to look unsympathetic. Hugh Grant channels Roger Moore's mannerisms so explicitly that one suspects his performance is an homage to the actor. In any event, this is the best work he's ever done and he should have been nominated for an Oscar for his role as the charismatic, charming rogue. It's hard to steal scenes from these two pros but Simon Helberg (of TV's "Big Bang Theory") manages to do so. He's a joy to watch and, like Grant, seems to have been cheated out of a possible Oscar nomination. Kudos, too, for the outstanding production design Alan MacDonald and the fine work of composer Alexandre Desplat.
The Paramount Blu-ray?DVD/digital format special edition features a wealth of interesting extras including interview with Meryl Streep about her life and career and featurettes dedicated to the production design, music, script process, etc. There is also a marvelous interview with Gino Francescino, who has been the curator of Carnegie Hall's historical memorabilia since 1986, much of which is shown (including rarities relating to the real-life Jenkins concert, which sold out but was never filmed or recorded). There is also a selection deleted scenes.
All told, this is a "must-have" release for movie lovers who want to take a sentimental journey back to the golden age of moviemaking.