Friday, August 7, 2015


Opening this weekend: 

Ricki and the FlashMeryl Streep has been a favorite of mine since, if memory serves, the second movie I ever reviewed, The Seduction of Joe Tynan back in 1979. If I recall, I referred to her as a “brilliant newcomer”; a nervy line from a seventeen-year-old, but I wasn’t wrong. Much as I loved her work back in those accent du jour days, however, I love her even more now—she's lightened up, and loosened up, and her performances are genuinely fun.

I also love Jonathan Demme, and I’ve missed him. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s he turned out a bunch of sophisticated yet unpretentious, entirely accessible classics and near-classics, like Something Wild, Married to the Mob, Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, but he hasn’t made anything anywhere near that level in years.

And I have a high regard for Diablo Cody, who crafted the snappy but heartfelt dialogue for Juno back in 2007. For that matter, I love Kevin Kline.

Which is why it pains me to report that the collaboration of all of the above, Ricki and the Flash, despite plenty of good work, is a miss, and not even a near-miss.

Streep plays Ricki, who abandoned her upper-middle-class Indiana family decades earlier to follow her rock star dreams in California. She had one failed album, and now she and The Flash serve as the house cover band at a bar in Tarzana, where they often outnumber their fans. Her lead guitarist (Rick Springfield, who looks agreeably a bit Kris Kristofferson-ish with middle age) is also her main squeeze, though she holds him at arm’s length emotionally.

Her patient, recessive ex (Kline), who long since remarried a supermom (Audra McDonald), has made peace with Ricki, but her three grown kids still resent her, at different levels of bitterness. Ricki gets a call from the ex that their daughter (Mamie Gummer) has been dumped by her husband and is in bad shape. When Ricki gets to Indianapolis, she finds that this was an understatement.

Nothing terribly wrong with any of this, on paper, and there are many sharp, funny passages of dialogue and lively little episodes. Cody has a way of departing from the standard movie-character playbook—Ricki, for instance, is one of those Tea Partiers who turn up at times in fields where you wouldn’t expect them. She makes sour cracks about Obama from the stage, voted twice for George W. Bush, and even has a Gadsden Flag tattooed on her back.

As always with Demme, the settings ring with authenticity and there are terrific touches of atmosphere. But there’s a slackness to the pacing and a sloppiness to the transitions that keep the movie from adding up, somehow, either as drama or as comedy.

Or, I’m afraid, as a jukebox musical, either. Streep is a fine musical talent—she handled the folk numbers in Altman’s Prairie Home Companion and the show tunes in Into the Woods with authority and wit. But the classic rock in Ricki and the Flash just isn’t a good fit for her voice and performing style, and Demme saddles her with several full numbers. I don’t wish to be ungallant, but let’s just say that it’s not terribly surprising that Ricki’s album wasn’t a success.

About the best thing I can say for Ricki and the Flash is that it doesn’t punish us too much. The movie climaxes at a wedding. I knew there were going to be toasts and speeches and awkward encounters, and I tensed up, remembering Demme’s 2008 Rachel Getting Married. But Demme and Cody give us a break—they don’t seem determined to make us miserable. Ricki’s gesture at the wedding is borderline inappropriate yet nonetheless lovely, and it ends the film on a pleasant note. But it’s faint praise when the best feeling a movie gives you is relief at what it didn’t do.

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