(On TV, March 2017) A modern take on the Cinderella story seems like a sure-fire premise—how difficult would it be to screw up? But as A Cinderella Story proves, there are no certitudes in life, especially in movies. Landing with a thud even by teen-movie standards, this film can’t be bothered to care about the main elements of the Cinderella myth, limps along without much grace and frequently becomes irritating rather than entertaining. Hilary Duff isn’t bad as the heroine of the tale and Regina King does manage to get out of a meager role with her dignity mostly intact, but the rest of the cast can’t do much to save a lifeless script with little in terms of style, charm, wit or grace. Jennifer Coolidge is particularly ill-served as the wicked step-mother: despite doing her best, her character is actively unpleasant without the panache we’d associate with the best incarnations of wicked step-mothers. The male cast is largely forgettable—although Simon Helberg does make an impression for a few scenes. At a time when there are a few serviceable versions of the Cinderella story floating around (including 1997’s Everafter, which wasn’t that good and yet still better than this), I can’t imagine a situation in which A Cinderella Story would be preferred over any other version. It mishandles great material and ends up delivering an instantly forgettable result.
(Video on Demand, December 2016) Comedy from drama is tough, but drama from comedy is even tougher. Someone deluded about the fact that she’s singing badly is prime comic material when it’s about a fictional character, but it can feel like punching down if the subject is a real person. Hence Florence Foster Jenkins’ modest success in discussing its titular character, a 1920s New York socialite who convinced herself of her singing abilities (up to an album and a concert at Carnegie Hall) despite, well, not being very good at it. How do you approach a subject like that? By going past the jokes and taking a look at the character. Our viewpoint character here isn’t Jenkins as much as her husband in an unusual marriage, seeing her delusions in a more objective frame of mind. Florence Foster Jenkins manages to be funny without being cruel to its lead character, and while Meryl Streep brings her usual gravitas to the role, the script deftly finds a balance between the comedy in her actions and the drama of understanding what moves her. Hugh Grant is suitably sympathetic as her husband, and nicely shows how well he’s aging into more interesting roles beyond the foppish goof persona he maintained for most of his career. In other smaller roles, Simon Helberg is surprisingly good as a pianist thrown into the madness, while Nina Arianda steals two scenes as a socialite who can’t help but say what’s on her mind. The depiction of a slice of 1920s New York society also has its appeal. While the result isn’t much more than the usual Oscar-baiting biopic, Florence Foster Jenkins has the advantage of being funnier, quirkier and even perhaps more resonant because of it.