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Movie Review

Meryl Streep hits off-note, on purpose, in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

Meryl Streep portrays the title character in “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Nick Wall/Paramount Pictures/Nick Wall © 2016 PARAMOUNT PICTURES

Do you laugh or cry for Florence Foster Jenkins, a woman once named “the worst singer in the world”? And are we supposed to laugh or cry at “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the stagy, troubling, bizarrely entertaining movie that has been made from her life? The film itself isn’t sure and splits the difference between mocking Jenkins and celebrating her demented self-belief. This is an interesting gray area, actually — as it was in reality — but the filmmakers seem flummoxed about how to navigate it.

What Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) couldn’t do, by any stretch of the imagination, was hold a tune. A New York society matron and lifelong supporter of the arts, she labored under the delusion that she had a magnificent voice for opera and art song, and she gave private concerts to share her gift with her social set. The few surviving recordings reveal the truth: Jenkins never once met a note she could hit, although she gamely swooped, quavered, and shrieked in her attempts to meet it halfway.

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It’s as if Margaret Dumont, the stuffy grand dame of all those Marx Brothers’ movies, had decided to dance “Swan Lake” with a wooden leg — performance art appreciated as such by everyone except the performer. I repeat: Do we laugh ironically (as many did at Jenkins) or cry at the attempt? Or do we just string the poor woman along?

Meryl Streep plays Jenkins in Stephen Frears’s new movie, and for perhaps the first time in a legendary career the actress seems sidelined. The movie’s named for her role, of course, and all the many characters are defined by their relationship and attitude toward Florence, but the focus is primarily on those characters and how they (and we) feel about her. Jenkins herself is a woman in a bubble of her own making.

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Chief among the adoring exploiters is her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a cheerful if talentless British actor who strenuously proclaims his love for her (and we’re meant to believe him) while living off her money and stashing a mistress (Rebecca Ferguson, from the last “Mission Impossible”) in a downtown apartment.

Also among the compromised: the mistress’s artsy (i.e., gay) Greenwich Village friends, who sit in the back of Florence’s concerts and stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths to stifle their laughter, the respected vocal coach (David Haig) who gives her lessons, a brassy Broadway starlet (the peerlessly comic Nina Arianda) who comes to admire Jenkins’s guts. Even the great conductor Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) is seen praising Florence’s talents while discreetly pocketing a check for his orchestra.

Our guide to this moral minefield is Jenkins’s accompanist, Cosme McMoon — that was his real name, honest — who is played by Simon Helberg as something between a closet case, an idiot, and a very nice young man. The overacting in “Florence Foster Jenkins” is of a level rarely seen in commercial cinema, but I guess that’s what happens when actors are asked to keep pace with Streep. What Helberg does with his facial expressions in this movie — eyebrows up through his hairline when he hears her sing, jaw dropping in confusion, eyes darting for the exits — is sometimes very funny and more often close to a seizure.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” takes place in 1944, when Jenkins, against all attempts to talk her out of it, insisted on a public concert held at Carnegie Hall, with 1,000 tickets patriotically given away to sailors in the US Navy — not an audience known for keeping their reactions to themselves. All the subsidiary characters fret that the cat may be at last out of the bag and that reality may come crashing in on Florence — but why? Because they’re afraid she’ll be hurt? Or because the gravy train is pulling into the final stop?

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Frears (“The Queen,” “Philomena”) directs the movie as an antic farce with the rug pulled out from under our emotions in the last act, and that may be the only way to deal with this story without placing its cruelty — our own willingness to laugh at the freak — front and center. (The 2015 French film “Marguerite,” a lightly fictionalized version, with Catherine Frot as the Jenkins character, took the same approach with similar amounts of static.)

For her part, Streep tackles the role as she does every other: with craft and guile and an unyielding self-belief worthy of Florence Foster Jenkins herself. (The only difference is that Streep has talent — or a talent we all agree upon.) The actress honors the character’s benevolent cluelessness and the melancholy beneath her optimism, and she nails every one of Florence Foster Jenkins’ godawful notes with precision. That alone sums up the movie’s contradictions.

★★½

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FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Nicholas Martin. Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, West Newton. 110 minutes. PG-13 (brief suggestive material)


Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.