In children’s literature and children’s programming, there sometimes seem to be a few core themes and lessons that are hammered home over and over. “Be yourself.” “Don’t care what other people think.” “It’s not about being the best; it’s about having fun.” Children’s narratives are certainly capable of more nuance than that—the children’s-young adult hybrid series Animorphs, for example, explores the ramifications of war and the pain of PTSD, concepts that are unexpectedly sophisticated for their target audience—but children’s stories tend to be inherently more simplistic than adult narratives. (I say this as a huge fan of children’s and young adult literature and programming.)
This week I watched Florence Foster Jenkins, a film that is certainly entertaining, but whose central themes are about as sophisticated as a child’s fable. The plot concerns Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), a real-life New York City socialite who devoted her life to celebrating opera and music. The premise (based in reality) is a bit sitcom-y; as Florence resumes her singing lessons, everyone around her lies to her about her talent, afraid to be honest with her about how terrible of a singer she is. Florence’s husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), most blatantly encourages Florence’s delusions, hiring a new accompanist for her lessons and warning him not to criticize her.
Most of the movie proceeds how you’d expect. Bayfield and accompanist/audience surrogate Cosmé McMoon (Helberg, whose erratic facial twitches are funny, though a little too much for me) bend over backwards to cover up the truth. When Florence proposes performing to a wider audience, Bayfield and McMoon hand-pick members of Florence’s Verdi Club, hoping that paying people off will prevent the truth from coming out.
There are numerous close calls, like when one socialite named Agnes Stark (Nina Arianda, animated and funny) erupts in uncontrollable laughter at the first recital, but for the most part Florence remains oblivious to her vocal shortcomings until the very end, at which point the movie goes full optimistic crowd-pleaser, laying on all the cheesy lessons you’d expect: be yourself. Don’t care what other people think. It’s not about being the best; it’s about having fun.
Look, I know that these are lessons that can still be helpful for adults to hear. But you can’t blame me for wishing there was something a little more there. It reminds me of all the cookie-cutter biopic endings when the main characters spew inspirational quotes seemingly designed to generations to come.
There was Alan Turing, in The Imitation Game, being reminded that “Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” In Florence Foster Jenkins, it’s Florence proudly pointing out that “Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing” only moments before she succumbs to sickness and dies. It doesn’t really matter that these historical figures really did say those things; movies have to find a way to make those quotes feel like more than empty faux-inspiration, and I’d argue that neither quite succeeds.
Besides, it’d be easier to enjoy the simplistic lessons for what they are if the film really made you invest in Florence, but she isn’t challenged nearly enough for her schmaltzy breakthrough at the end to hold much emotional weight. At her final concert at Carnegie Hall, the audience breaks out in laughter, and for a moment, Florence is stunned, afraid, confused. But even that moment is quickly reversed when Agnes yells at the audience to be quiet, and everyone ends up giving Florence a standing ovation, encouraging her to go on. She carries on in delusion.
The only real challenge to Florence’s pride occurs with less than 15 minutes left in the movie, when Bayfield fails to prevent her from seeing a copy of the New York Post, which contains a scathing review of her performance. Florence is upset, but by limiting the negative reception to just one review, the film’s lesson momentarily shifts to the idea that there’ll always be someone who doesn’t like your art, and that you have to accept that not everyone will like you.
This is an equally disingenuous lesson, because Florence is unquestionably a bad singer. If there’s an argument to be made in her favor, it’s that she does what she’s passionate about, not that she’s an objectively good singer. Limiting the negative reception to only one review makes it feel like one unreasonable outlying opinion.
Indeed, the few people who are honest to Florence are treated as cartoonish villains. The writer of that Post article is angry and vindictive, the kind of critic that movies like Birdman love to demonize. He seems to relish tearing Florence apart, hyperbolically calling her the worst singer in the world. The film paints him as an evil man who wants to ruin everyone’s fun, even if his criticisms of Florence’s singing are fairly accurate.
The movie does have hints of nuance in its subplots. There’s a genuine warmth to Florence’s interactions with McMoon, who she occasionally treats like the son she could never have. The heart of the film, though, lies in the love Florence and Bayfield have for each other.
At the beginning, when Bayfield’s mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) is introduced, you start to suspect there’ll be a predictable series of scenes culminating in the truth coming out about Bayfield’s infidelity, tearing their marriage apart until a third-act reconciliation. The reality, though, is that Florence and Bayfield have an unspoken understanding; due to Florence’s syphilis, they abstain from sex, and Bayfield finds satisfaction elsewhere. The movie doesn’t delve too deeply into the implications of this arrangement, but it’s refreshing to see Nicholas Martin’s script avoid the trappings of the cliché infidelity plot.
And the movie in general is pretty fun, bolstered by typically strong acting from Streep and Grant, a pleasantly light tone, and expectedly meticulous period detail. It’s an enjoyable experience, even if it mostly fails to come up with anything deeper than “Do what you love and don’t care what other people think.”