There are three set pieces in Florence Foster Jenkins, a comic love story set in 1944 New York City. In the first, heiress and music patroness Florence (Meryl Streep) takes her initial singing lesson with her new pianist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg).
She is dressed in finery. She stands in her grand parlour surrounded by lovely things. She is supported by her voice coach Carlo (David Haig) and her infinitely patient husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), whom she calls Whitey. (He calls her Bunny.) She is gracious and determined. Her love of music is thorough and sincere.
McMoon plays the intro. Florence opens her mouth. But what flies out of it are not notes. They are the squawks of dying birds, the squeaks of terrified mice, the croaks of lusty frogs. McMoon, wide-eyed, glances at Bayfield. The supportive smile never leaves his face, but the look he gives McMoon says it all: We indulge this woman. We do not mock her. Stick with this job, and you'll see why.
In the second set piece, Florence performs a small concert for a gathering of friends. In the third, she sings before a full house at Carnegie Hall. In neither of them has her voice improved.
Now, in lesser hands, those three scenes could feel like the same joke, inflated more each time. But director Stephen Frears (Philomena), screenwriter Nicholas Martin and their cast are intelligent, compassionate pros. They're after something more complex and bittersweet. Between singing scenes, they take us by the hand and introduce us – swiftly, deftly, but ever more significantly – to all the reasons Florence wants to sing, and all the reasons her entourage supports her. So each time she caterwauls, it means something new.
Yes, everyone is taking advantage of Florence. Carlo knows she's hopeless, as does her friend, the great Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh). But they need her patronage. Whitey, an actor who never quite made it, tucks Florence into bed each night, and then hightails off to his own apartment (which Florence pays for), where he lives with the alluring Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson). The script doesn't have to spell out that Florence knows yet pretends not to – a single dark flash across Streep's face takes care of that.
Gradually, though, we see that everyone's reasons are more complicated than they seem. Florence isn't a patsy – she's a great many things, including stubborn, haughty, warm, cosseted and lonely. Streep commits to the hilarity of the singing. But the fullness of that commitment is the very thing that keeps Florence from being ridiculous.
As fine as Streep is, however, it's Grant's movie. Though Whitey clearly married Florence for her money, it's also clear that he's come to admire her. Being kind to her is the best thing he'll ever do and he knows it. The role could not be more perfect for Grant – his edge hasn't dulled; his eyes are as mischievous as ever. But there are crows' feet around them now, and I bet he knows a thing or two about how experience can soften one's impulse to be cruel.
Broadway It Girl Nina Arianda kicks up her heels as a flashy moll. And Helberg (best known as Howard from The Big Bang Theory) must be thanking his lucky stars: As McMoon, his crack comic timing lifts him out of sitcomhood and makes him big-screen credible.
Florence Foster Jenkins isn't perfect; bits of busyness can't disguise its simple arc. But it trips lightly through some pretty profound ideas about power, selfishness, vanity, generosity, and human frailty.
Mainly, it dares to be sincere. In an age when comedy is typically gross, mocking and/or ironic, sincerity is not just a refreshing balm, it's an act of bravery.