Florence Foster Jenkins and my Netflix Paralysis

Netflix Paralysis. That’s what I’m calling it. It is a state of existence in which there is simply too much to watch on my streaming subscriptions that I become overwhelmed with, and therefore paralyzed by choice. It’s not just The Big Bad N that’s perpetuating the cycle. It’s Crave. It’s Amazon Prime. It’s YouTube. And hell, on a bad day it’s even my news apps. I scan selected movies (series, clips, vines, what-have-yous), unable to commit to one. When I do finally commit, I’m shutting it down within minutes because it hasn’t immediately mesmerized me, and there’s too much other stuff to watch… that really should be Stuff—capitalized. I don’t ever remember a time in my life when I encountered this dilemma before, but here we are.

Happily, I was recently reunited with that elusive sense of commitment. I saw a title, I clicked on it, I stayed the course from opening to closing credits. What was this miracle film that captured my undivided attention, you might ask? (Or maybe probably not, but it fits well and it amuses me, so I’m keeping it.) It was Florence Foster Jenkins starting Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.

The film is a biographical comedy-drama about a New York heiress known for her terrible operatic singing. In The Book of Heroic Failures, author Stephen Pile said she was “the world’s worst opera singer … No one, before or since, has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation.” Despite her complete lack of talent, and self-awareness at the lack (or maybe because of it), she became a cult sensation whose loyal friends and fans held her in esteemed affection, regularly lending timely coughs and raucous applause to performances in order to drown out unsympathetic patrons who came to mock the poor, clueless lady. Of course, there is debate about how clueless “Lady Jenkins,” as she called herself, really was, for she took obvious measures to insulate herself from criticism. Her ineptitude, and failure to realize/acknowledge it, may also have had much to do with nerve damage caused by syphilis, an infection bestowed upon her as a gift by her first husband on their wedding night.

Indeed, Florence Foster Jenkins was somewhat pathetic—by that I mean in terms of the quality of pathos, rather than the colloquial label we use disparagingly in modern speech. In the hands of a lesser talent, Florence the character could easily have been made a mockery for cinematic entertainment just like Florence the woman was by her contemporaries (gawd, can you imagine what someone like Lindsay Lohan would do with the role? No offense to LiLo fans, of course). It takes a sincere kind of sensitivity to step into a role like Florence Foster Jenkins, to truly become her in all her luminosity and vulnerability. To make us laugh at her ridiculousness while at the same time making us want to clobber anyone else who laughs. To find and embrace all of the human fragility that made her lovable to audiences then, and transcend time so that she is as lovable to audiences now.

But here’s the best part: It was only after the movie ended that this revelation came to me, because watching Meryl Streep effortlessly portray the beautifully flawed socialite was seamless. There on my television screen, streamed from Netflix’s ever-growing curation of content, was Florence Foster Jenkins. And herein lies the brilliance of my post-Jenkins lightbulb moment: Streep’s performance had to have been anything but effortless. Nobody could have pulled off that kind of heartfelt performance without a considerable amount of thought, study and practice. To bring the essence of Florence to life with just the right intonation on a word here, or just the right toss of the head there. And really, can the same not be said of pretty much all of Meryl Streep’s performances? From The Devil Wears Prada to Sophie’s Choice, from Julie and Julia to Kramer vs. Kramer. Even in critical flops like Death Becomes Her, her acting makes you forget that she’s acting.

Now damn, that’s talent. It’s a talent that stands head and shoulders, knees and toes above the mass influx of Stuff that is the cause of my Netflix paralysis.  

Before I forget, I’d like to extend a hat tip to Simon Helberg. His comedic timing and thoughtful delivery as Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory have always struck me as coming from the same kind of effortless talent that is anything but effortless. In Florence Foster Jenkins, as the mortified pianist Cosme McMoon, Wolowizard proves he is more than just a one-trick MIT grad whose claim to fame is inextricably attached to moments like the Wolowitz Zero-Gravity Waste Disposal System. Kudos, sir!

Florence Foster Jenkins made me laugh, it made me cry. It released me from my streaming-related funk for two beautiful hours. Unfortunately, it hasn’t cured my Netflix Paralysis, because the pressing question will always be… what next? But for now, it was nice to stretch my legs and rediscover an emotional response, one that is quintessentially human, to watching a really damn good movie.

Thanks, Meryl.

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