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‘Florence Foster Jenkins’: Streep’s bad singer sets good example

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant star in "Florence Foster Jenkins."

In a recent interview Meryl Streep was reminded that Florence Foster Jenkins — a New York socialite totally delusional in thinking her terrible singing was outstanding — is likely remembered today better than many truly talented operatic stars who performed at Carnegie Hall in the early years of the 20th Century.

In response, Streep noted how “tragic” that was yet smiled as she recalled the many months she spent becoming Jenkins to portray the title character in “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Naturally, with the release of this motion picture, artfully and sensitively directed by Stephen Frears, the legend of Ms. Jenkins will likely reach even greater heights and notoriety.

The great gift of this film, of course, is that Streep again completely embodies the character she is playing and not only brings her back to life decades later, but imbues Florence with such empathy, charm, dedication and warmth that we’re cheering for her throughout this entire movie. Missed note or atrocious phrasing notwithstanding, we are able to overlook Florence’s shrill assaults on the eardrums — though there are a tad too many of them here that could have been edited out — just because we are entranced by Florence’s desire to follow her dream.

“Florence” easily could have devolved down into a sappy, melodramatic or even cruel farce, if not for the skill of all involved, including Nicholas Martin’s well-honed screenplay. While we cringe at Florence’s awful warbling, we quickly come to realize this generous, loving woman cares deeply about the world of music — and is overcoming some truly tragic personal obstacles to support the one art form she adores above all others.

In Oscar queen Streep’s performance — again worthy of the Academy’s attention — she is supported by a superb cast that includes Hugh Grant as her longtime companion and careful protector St. Clair Bayfield, and Simon Helberg of “The Big Bang Theory,” who is such a joy to watch every moment he’s on-screen. Helberg plays Cosme McMoon, the quirky pianist (and Helberg is a talented keyboard whiz in real life) who becomes Florence’s accompanist as she begins her journey to reach her dream: a concert at Carnegie Hall. In many ways, Helberg represents us, the audience, and we share his horror at the prospect of walking out on a stage at Carnegie Hall to face a sold-out crowd bound to boo and hoot and literally chase Cosme and Florence right off the stage.

It’s also a delight to watch Grant as he takes great advantage of this film’s script to give us a character that fully showcases the performance skills often lacking in the talented actor’s more recent movies. Though living with another woman (for reasons the film will clearly explain), Bayfield remains Florence’s one true personal rock in her life.

This is an intelligent, deeply moving film that is about so much more than a rich lady with delusional dreams about her own musical abilities. It is, in fact, quite an uplifting homage to the spirit of confidence in the face of enormous adversity.

I think you, too, will be cheering for Ms. Jenkins by the time she takes her final bow here.

★★★1⁄2

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Stephen Frears and written by Nicholas Martin. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for brief suggestive material). Opens Friday at local theaters.