A musical family drama that gets dampened by a tentative script and an even-steven ending.
Ricki and the Flash
Meryl Streep plays dive bar rockstar Ricki Rendazzo in Ricki and the Flash, a movie that, like its leather-wearing, guitar-shredding protagonist, is a lot softer and harmless on the inside than on its edgy exterior would indicate. It’s directed by Jonathan Demme, written by Diablo Cody, and along with Streep stars her daughter, Mamie Gummer, Kevin Kline, Sebastian Stan and Rick effing Springfield. The stacked crew of talent fashions a generally low-key family drama with a few surprises up its sleeve, making for a pleasant summertime distraction.
Working at a Total Foods by day (a Whole Foods stand-in) and jamming out sets of cover tunes in front of modest crowds at The Salt Well with her band, The Flash, by night, 60-something Ricki’s carved out a quaint, unglamorous but artistically fulfilling life for herself in Tarzana, California. She gets into the occasional tiff with her boyfriend/lead guitarist (Springfield), but the townsfolk love her and she’s got a nightly gig, which is more than most starving musicians could ever hope for.
In her previous life, she was called Linda Brummell, and she was living the American Dream, raising three kids with her ex, Pete (Kline). Ricki’s been estranged from them for years, but Pete calls her out of the blue to invite her back to Indianapolis, where he lives with his new wife, Maureen (a pitch-perfect Audra McDonald). Ricki’s split from the family wasn’t a pretty one (we learn more later), so a phone call from Pete is anything but normal, but desperate times call for desperate measures: their daughter, Julie (Gummer), has just been dumped by her fiance, leaving her in a nasty state. Ricki hops on a plane straight away; this is her chance to pick up the pieces and be Julie’s mom again, though Julie isn’t exactly thrilled at the thought of repairing the long-stagnant relationship.
Ricki and Pete’s two sons are even less open to accepting their mom back into their lives. Josh (Stan) is engaged to a pampered rich girl who’s repulsed by his mother’s ’80s rock attire and filthy mouth; Adam (Nick Westrate) is gay and views Ricki as a walking contradiction, her tattoos and progressive attitude a front, in his eyes, for her self-professed Obama-hating, Republican political views. “She voted for Geroge W. Bush!” he screams. It’s clear Ricki and Julie are cut from the same cloth: when they unleash a barrage of fiery barbs on an eavesdropper at a local donut shop, they shoot evil glares over their shoulders in perfect unison, just like the Siamese cats from 101 Dalmatians. Gummer’s uncanny resemblance to her mother makes the scene sing.
Cody’s script tries to juggle too many themes and ideas, abandoning a lot of them on the way. Parental gender inequity and the weight of maternal responsibility define the central narrative arc, but neither feels adequately explored by the end credits. What comes through the loudest and proudest is the beauty and power of Ricki’s passion for music, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering who’s sitting the director’s chair. Demme shoots concert footage better than just about anybody (Stop Making Sense is incomparable), and he flexes that muscle here, capturing perfectly Streep’s gutsy live performances (she sings every song herself and even learned how to play guitar for the role). Highlights include renditions of Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga and Tom Petty classics (and a pop stinker by Pink).
Though Ricki’s maligned by just about everyone in her family for wiggling out of the motherly role she was dealt to run off and pursue another dream, they eventually learn to appreciate her free-wheeling, risk-taking outlook on life. None of the supporting characters are all that complex, but Ricki’s incredibly layered and three-dimensional, many of her core personality traits in direct competition with one another. There’s the George W. Bush thing, but there’s also the fact that she loves her children to death, and yet couldn’t stop herself from leaving them behind to pursue her music career. Streep is almost acrobatic in how she controls a scene, flipping the tone and temperature of a conversation several times with subtle facial expressions and well-timed zingers (provided of course by Cody, the undisputed queen of mean).
The movie’s biggest disappointment is its even-steven ending, which wraps things up too nicely. Things actually get pretty turbulent during the middle section, which caught me off-guard in a good way, but the way Cody resolves every little conflict so neatly is a bit of a let-down. Cody plays it safe, which, unfortunately, puts a damper the quality of everyone else’s work. Streep definitely gets her shine, though, like when she busts out an acoustic guitar for a solo performance of the movie’s one original song, “Cold One,” written by Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice. It’s a super catchy tune that, like the other musical numbers, provides a welcome respite from Cody’s overly tentative writing.