The joke — which we already know — is that she is a catastrophically bad singer. In Florence Foster Jenkins, director Stephen Frears spins nearly two hours of light comedy out of Jenkins securing the Carnegie gig in spite of her lack of talent. Chiefly, her “husband,” a failed British actor named St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), keeps her in a protective bubble of praise, while paying off patrons, vocal coaches and press.
Frears builds slowly to the film’s first big laugh, when we hear Jenkins sing. We’re joined by Jenkins’ eager new piano accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), who about has a nervous breakdown when the caterwauling begins. His bug-eyed reactions are expected, but not half as funny as Grant’s as he cycles through facial expressions bestowing warm praise on Florence and yes-I-know-but-keep-playing warnings to McMoon. Terrible singing is billed as this film’s entertainment, but it’s mugging among the leads that matters.
It’s a tragicomedy played quite broadly, with a darker angle that gets turned into heartwarming fluff: Is it really a kindness to perpetrate a falsehood upon a loved one? Florence makes the elaborate subterfuge seem like an act of true love, but left unchallenged is the cruelty of it (and the financial benefits, particularly for Bayfield). We can adore this vintage Florence while conveniently forgetting how much of today’s entertainment involves openly mocking the deluded and talentless (TV talent shows, viral videos, Trump’s campaign).
But Florence doesn’t demand deep thought — it’s a fine August diversion, if you don’t mind comedies on the slower, fustier side. And like all people blissfully convinced of their own greatness, Florence gets the last word: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”