RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015) review
written by: Diablo Cody
produced by: Mason Novick and Marc Platt
directed by: Jonathan Demme
rating: PG – 13 (for thematic material, brief drug content, sexuality and language)
runtime: 101 min.
U.S. release date: August 7, 2015
DVD/Blu-ray release date: November 24, 2015
“Ricki and the Flash” seems like another example that Meryl Streep can do anything. (Not that we need one). Now in her mid-60s, she plays an aging rock-and-roll singer/guitarist, complete with heavy eye-shadow, piercings and tattoos. She sings great (no surprise, if you’ve been following her career) and legitimately rocks as leader of her band of veterans, The Flash (and you thought this was a DC Superhero Team-Up). So, no surprise that she succeeds as a rocker, but the question going into Jonathan Demme’s “Ricki and the Flash” is whether or not there’s more to what is essentially a family drama with a bar band soundtrack. The answer wavers somewhere between “maybe” and “almost” and then nestles on “not quite”. Nevertheless, the performances are solid, the production and direction is light and breezy feature, making this an overall enjoyable feature even though I’d change a few things here and there in Diablo Cody’s (“Juno” and “Young Adult”) script .
Years ago, Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) followed her dream of becoming a rock star by leaving her husband and three kids back in the Midwest and heading to California. Now she leads a rock band called The Flash at a local bar in Tanzana, California. They are essentially the ‘house band’ with their steady fans of regular patrons, which means that Ricki’s rock stardom never took off. She lives alone in a quaint (putting it nicely) apartment complex and is in a tentative relationship with the patient and sensitive Greg (Rick Springfield), her lead guitarist By day, Ricki makes ends meet as a cashier at a an organic grocery chain named, ahem, Total Foods (where she makes a joke to a customer mentioning, “total paycheck” and is then reprimanded by her manager for alienating a customer – oh, Diablo!).
That’s the set-up and, of course, Streep nails it. We’re sold on her, but the material is showing wrinkle marks early on. Ricki receives a phone call from a 317 area code and it becomes obvious to us that this is a call she doesn’t want to take. In fact, she doesn’t – until about the third attempt to reach her. The caller is Pete (Kevin Kline), her ex-husband, who’s calling to let Ricki know that their daughter, Julie (Streep’s real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer) was recently kicked to the curb by her husband and is now in a deep depressive funk. She needs her mother. This stops Ricki in her tracks, since she’s never been there for her children and is now a little uncertain and scared.
Despite being broke, Ricki hesitantly boards a plane (something she hasn’t done in decades based on her reaction to TSA patdowns) and arrives at Pete’s McMansion ouside of Indianapolis. Ricki feels fidgety around her family and becomes a target for her children’s resentment. Her sons, Josh (Sebastian Stan, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier“) and Adam (Nick Westlake), are hostile toward her and despite finding an unlikely connection with Julie – which surprises Pete (and frankly, Julie) – Ricki feels too awkward and out-of-place around the wealthy life Pete has with his second wife, Maureen (a wonderful Audra McDonald). When Maureen returns from tending to an ill family member, there is an unavoidable meeting of the minds between the first and second wife, that sends Ricki back to California overwhelmed and ashamed.
Upon her return to the west coast, Ricki is a mess, turning her shame and regret to anger and bitterness, making it quite difficult for her band to work with her. She makes matters worse by lashing out at Greg onstage, the one guy in her life who loves her just as she is. In a kind gesture, Maureen mails Ricki an invitation to her son Josh’s upcoming wedding, unbeknownst to the rest of the family. Knowing that Ricki should be there, regardless of how difficult it would be, Greg pawns off his guitar and purchases tickets for them to fly back to the Midwest. With Greg by her side, Ricki is able to hold herself together at the wedding together despite stink eyes by the guests and is able to slowly develop a hesitant acceptance from her children.
There are elements of “Ricki and the Flash” which just didn’t work for me. Some of those moments may seem petty, but if I can’t get over it, then it’s no small thing. First off, the rocker look Streep has going for her feels way too forced. I get maybe a Lucinda Williams or Chrissie Hynde look, but there’s just something about her raccoon eyes and “rocker” hair that comes across as trying too hard. It was a challenge for me to believe Ricki is an actual person and not Cody’s image of Meryl Streep as an aging rocker.
I also felt that some of the conversations Ricki had with her children, specifically her sons, felt way too heightened and overdramatic. I get that they are hurt from their mother checking out on them years ago, but they come across overly callous and kind of cruel. It’s understandable that Julie is a mess – (let it be known that Gummer is really great in the role) – so you expect her to be somewhat of a power keg, but having all three be on Ricki’s back seems overkill.
That being said, there are some good performances here in roles that could’ve easily been stereotypical or just plan bad. You expect greatness from Streep and this role will remind viewers how great she showing vulnerability. She plays a wounded free spirit with fear, defiance and resilience. Her scenes with Kline’s Pete are filled with “what-ifs” and authentic “elephant-in-the-room” unease. Streep and Kline, who haven’t been on-screen together since 1982’s “Sophie’s Choice”, feel right together. It helps that they’re given decent characters to work with, but Cody’s characterization benefits from these two veterans.
There are a couple great scenes between the two actors, but one that stands out is a scene where a reclining Julie and Pete listen as Ricki sings her song “Cold One” (written by Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice), wherein the audience gets the idea that this divorced couple could be experiencing some emotional stirs toward each other. It’s subtlety shot by Demme and effortlessly communicated by Streep and Kline and serves as one of few moments that feel less heavy-handed. However, the last 20 minutes of the movie, essentially the wedding, feels like Demme’s version of a Nancy Meyer (“Something’s Gotta Give” and “It’s Complicated“) film.
For a movie sporadically filled with awkward tension, closing with a wedding reception (granted, Demme is great at weddings, see the excellent”Rachel Getting Married”) that comes together so smoothly in an effort to seemingly please viewers, just seems lazy and disingenuous. Seeing Meryl legitimately rock with Rick Springfield is great and all, but to be honest “Ricki and the Flash” just didn’t feel like the kind of character study Demme excels at.