If you don’t know who the punchline is, then the punchline is you. Or the kid who was given woodblocks to play in grammar school, and thought they were making a difference.
Florence Foster Jenkins is a true story. There was a Florence (Meryl Streep). She was a horrible singer. And most of all, she believed she was gifted. This charade of a musical performer lasts because she’s filthy rich, more rich than a couple of yuppies living in a Mexican slum; and rich enough, that no one is willing to tell her the truth.
Her husband, St. Clair (Hugh Grant), is the ringleader. A so-so Shakespearean actor who knew a good play when he saw one (If you didn’t know a pun was coming, then the yoke’s on you), he attached himself to a woman who had little self-confidence (Coming off a failed marriage) and had contracted syphilis (So no need for sex). With Florence, it’s difficult to tell if her belief that she is a good singer goes contrary because of self-denial, or because she has syphilis. A disease that has been known, if left untreated, to degrade mental faculties.
While Streep delivers laughs with every failed vocal performance (Streep is an amazingly talented vocalist. You have to be in order to control a vocal enough to make it sound bad), it’s difficult not to feel a cringe when laughing. Is the audience laughing at a disabled woman?
Better yet, why isn’t Hugh Grant the slimiest character this year? Because he should be.
He’s the one who lies to Florence. The one who bribes columnist to write favorable reviews. Who shows Florence only the “best” reviews. Who sells tickets to those who will applaud. And invites deaf old ladies. He’s the one who uses Florence’s money to rent a separate apartment, where he can fondle his mistress (Rebecca Ferguson). He’s a turd.
So, why don’t we hate Hugh Grant?
Because he’s just so damn charming.
I mean, look at him! He’s British. Pop that kind of accent, and the world is yours. But most of all, it’s Grant the actor. His honed persona, one that has taken decades, of the handsomest guy in high school who you’re just glad is talking to you, is all over this film. When the pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), tells him that he must quit for fear of the embarrassment that comes with playing with Florence, Grant reminds him that it’s easy money. Most of all. Grant says, “You’re my friend!” The only response? “Really? Me!” Grant’s response: “Of course, you sucker.”
Yet, Grant’s conversations and hand holding never appear to be malicious. He does care for Florence. In a weird, I need to protect this person who may wilt and die at any moment kind of way. Those Brits, so romantic! But Grant walks the edges well, without falling. It’s rare that Streep is overshadowed. She may get the Oscar nom because she’s Meryl Streep, and a little run-in with Trump has given her some momentum, but Grant is the most deserving (Having never had an Oscar nomination).
Grant, Helberg, and Streep take what could have been a cringe-worthy script, and make it mostly redeemable. Nevertheless, a biting question remains. When is it not okay to laugh at Florence? Is it ever okay? In the end, it’s a person who may have a mental disability. Someone who’s been taken advantage of. Someone, who the term “punchline” shouldn’t apply to. Instead, may be the punchline is the audience. The ones who pay to see Florence sing. The one who never tell her the truth. Those who write glowing reviews of her. And those who paid to see the movie, including me….
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