Dreaming big dreams, and acting on those dreams, are a major part of the American ethos. Two recent movies—Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic and Stephen Frears’ Florence
Foster Jenkins—are variations on that concept.
Captain Fantastic begins with a scene straight out of James Fenimore Cooper, or Jim Harrison if you prefer. A deer walks
stealthily through a pristine forest, pricking up its ears at a faint rustling in the bushes. In a second, the deer has a fatal encounter with the one who’s doing the
rustling: Bodevan Cash (George MacKay), a long-haired, bare-chested, knife-wielding teenage boy completing a rite of passage set for him by his father Ben (Viggo Mortensen).
Ben is watching Bo from the bushes, as are Bo’s five brothers and sisters.
Ben Cash is a rebel for our times—a left-wing survivalist. He and
his wife Leslie (Trin Miller) have lived off the grid for twenty years in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, raising their children away
from pop culture and the Internet, and living on what they can kill, grow or forage. It is Ben’s dream that his children will not be
infected by the prefabricated pieties of American civilization. Instead of watching TV, the family sits around the campfire at
night, discussing Trotsky, Dostoyevsky and Bach. Instead of Christmas, the family celebrates Noam Chomsky’s birthday, with
Ben handing out gifts of bows, arrows and knives to all his children, including his six-year-old daughter. Much like Teddy
Roosevelt—a president Ben almost certainly despises—Ben sets strenuous tasks for his children to accomplish, including a
harrowing climb up the bare surface of a cliff. (This comes back to haunt Ben later.)
As the movie opens, Leslie has been hospitalized in her home state of New Mexico for one of her regular bouts of severe
depression. Not long into the movie, Ben gives his children the news, short and straight: their mother has killed herself.
Ben is reluctant to attend the funeral, largely because Leslie’s father Jack (Frank Langella) has threatened to have him arrested
if he ever sees him again. But at the insistence of the children, Ben gasses up Steve, the old school bus that serves as the family’s
transportation, and takes it and the kids on the road to Albuquerque. The children’s venture into America produces
many shocks—such as their astonishment at seeing so many fat people. The issue of Ben vs. The World is illustrated by the
family’s stop on the way to visit Leslie’s sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband Dave (Steve Zahn). Just as Ben’s children
have no knowledge of TV, the Internet or video games, Harper and Dave’s sons, Justin and Jackson (Elijah Stevenson and Teddy
Van Ee), have no knowledge of the rigorous intellectual agenda Ben sets for his kids. Ben has his children recite the Constitution
from memory, whereas Justin and Jackson have only the vaguest notion of what the Constitution is. (Not surprisingly, Justin and
Jackson give Ben and his kids a one-fingered salute as they drive off.)
This is only the prelude to the pandemonium that results when Ben and his children arrive at Leslie’s funeral. This is the crux of
the film, and I will not describe in detail what happens here. Suffice it to say that Ben and Jack are both very determined,
stubborn men; both have right on their side, and they are irreconcilable. Ben is blindsided by unexpected rebellion from Bo
and from middle son Raillian (Nicholas Hamilton); this plus a sudden near-tragedy sends Ben into a crisis of conscience,
wondering whether he has been a bad influence on his children after all.
This may well be Mortensen’s best performance to date. His Ben
Cash is so unflinchingly certain of being right that he can’t help but create chaos wherever he goes—whether it’s crashing into
Leslie’s funeral like a crazed alpha wolf or enjoying a morning cup of coffee in an RV park, greeting his neighbors in the nude. I wish
Langella had a larger role, because his scenes of sparring with Mortensen are among the best in the film.
The young actors playing Ben’s children are excellent without exception. I must make special mention of MacKay, who made a
superb impression in Matthew Warchus’ Pride and is just as fine here. MacKay’s Bo can kill and field-dress a deer with his bare
hands, and deliver a critical exegesis of Middlemarch that would put Harold Bloom to shame, but has no idea how to approach a
girl. This is made painfully obvious in an extended, funny-sad scene in the RV park with a girl named Claire (Erin Moriarty). In
this and in other scenes, MacKay’s angular face and startling blue eyes are compelling vectors for the portrayal of deep and honest emotion.
Captain Fantastic is entertaining and thought-provoking for eighty percent of its running time. It is a major disappointment
when director-screenwriter Ross detours the film into sickly contrivance in its last twenty minutes, negating much of the good
will it has developed up to that point. (These plot developments were foretold by a provision in Leslie’s will, revealed by Ben at the
funeral.) I remember one reviewer of Barbra Streisand’s film of Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides,saying that the film is excellent
until the scene in which Streisand and Nick Nolte get into a cab together. He was right, and I will only add that Captain Fantastic is excellent until the scene in which the kids come out of the bus
crawlspace. When that happens, feel free to head for the exit, unless you love the idea of watching the Partridge Family on acid.
Though the real Florence Foster Jenkins may have sent audiences heading for the exit during her performances, Stephen Frears’ film
of her life will keep you glued to your seat. This charming, funny and poignant movie is presented, persuasively, as a profile in
courage, however misguided that courage might have been.
Nicholas Martin’s screenplay is set in 1944, the last year in the life of Madame Florence (as she directs all her friends to call her).
The film opens with one of the musicales Madame Florence (Meryl Streep) has organized for the Verdi Club, the New York musical
organization she founded. The program begins with a soliloquy from Hamlet delivered, in less-than-stirring fashion, by St. Clair
Bayfield (Hugh Grant), Madame Florence’s common-law husband. Then it continues to its high point: tableaux vivant featuring the grande dame herself, hoisted painfully by ropes and pulleys, as a
Wagnerian Valkyrie and as the angel who inspired Stephen Foster to write “Camptown Races.”
This sets the giddy tone of Florence Foster Jenkins, which tells
of the happy little bubble of a world that Madame Florence
inhabited, and her unshakable belief that she was the greatest soprano of her time. Never does she hear a discouraging word
about the quality of her singing: not from Bayfield, who uses Madame Florence’s ample funds to pay off critics; not Cosme
McMoon (Simon Helberg), Madame Florence’s accompanist, who is paid well to indulge her eccentricities; not from Carlo Edwards
(David Haig), Madame Florence’s vocal coach, who has learned to give her noncommittal compliments such as, “You’ve never sounded better.”
As a gift to her friends in the Verdi Club, Madame Florence makes a recording. When the nonplussed recording engineer asks her to
do a retake, she replies, “I don’t see why. I thought it was perfect!” Impulsively, she sends a copy to the host of her favorite
classical radio program, who plays it on the air. This elicits a happy response from a wounded soldier that leads to an epiphany
for Madame Florence: she must rent out Carnegie Hall and perform there, as a gesture “for our boys.” I will not spoil what transpires after that.
The recordings of Florence Foster Jenkins must be heard to be believed; New Yorker critic Anthony Lane likened the sound of
her voice to “a hyena giving birth,” and I cannot improve on that. An actual Jenkins recording plays over the closing credits of Florence Foster Jenkins; this demonstrates just how accurately
Streep captures those hoots and shrieks. Like Jean Stapleton in All in the Family and Patricia Routledge in Keeping up Appearances, Streep shows that it takes an excellent singer to
play a bad one.
Yet Florence Foster Jenkins is more than a spoof of terrible singing. At no point in the film is there any condescension toward
Jenkins, either from Streep or from Martin’s screenplay. We don’t get far into the film before learning of the multiple tragedies and
humiliations Jenkins has endured in her life, and also that one tragedy in particular robbed her of a legitimate career in music. I
will not expand on that here, although the facts are readily available on Wikipedia and other websites. Suffice it to say that
when she says, “Music always has been, and is, my life,” she means it. One scene between Jenkins and McMoon, seated at the
piano in McMoon’s apartment, is poignant testimony to what Jenkins lost.
It also becomes plain that the people around Jenkins humor her because they love her and don’t want to see her get hurt. Bayfield,
himself a failed artist, is especially solicitous. His relationship with Jenkins—also based on fact—stands as a metaphor for the
entire film. It is sort of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” arrangement. Bayfield has his own apartment, which he shares with his mistress
Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), yet he is always at Jenkins’ hotel suite to tuck her in at night and bring her breakfast in bed in the
morning. The depth of the couple’s feelings for each other is never in doubt, although the film tells us early on why they don’t share a bed.
Streep and Grant are superb, each dancing on the knife-edge between comedy and tragedy. Simon Helberg, as McMoon, is a
delightful foil for them, constantly smiling to himself at his good/bad fortune in becoming the accompanist of Madame
Florence. He has two particularly memorable scenes: one when he floats down the sidewalk after first meeting Madame Florence,
the second when he explains to her that a group of sailors waylaid him on the way to Carnegie Hall. “They were most disrespectful,”
he says, grinning from ear to ear. (Helberg also does his own piano playing, and he is very good.) Among the featured players,
the standout is Nina Arianda as Agnes, a raucous ex-showgirl who becomes one of Madame Florence’s biggest boosters.
The most beautiful moment in Florence Foster Jenkins comes at the very end, when we finally hear the voice that Jenkins has
heard in her head all along. The music may have been ridiculous, but the woman herself was not. She was an American dreamer of
the most benign sort, and that is a lovely thing.