Ricki and the Flash is a half-baked comedy/drama, but the cast (including Meryl Streep’s aging rocker) makes it a charming one.
Ricki and the Flash stars Meryl Streep as ‘Ricki Rendazzo’, an older musician who long ago gave up on her family life in the pursuit of rock n’ roll stardom; nowadays, Ricki spends her nights performing for a small, though loyal, crowd at a California bar with her band, The Flash. When Ricki’s ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) asks for her help caring for their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) – who suffered a breakdown after being dumped and divorced by her husband – Ricki agree and makes the long journey across the country to Indianapolis, to see the family she left behind.
Ricki thereafter slowly, but surely, begins to rekindles ties with Julie and Pete alike, though even more awkwardness ensues when she reunites with her two grown sons, Joshua (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate) – as well as Pete’s wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald). However, with encouragement from her bandmate and would-be lover Greg (Rick Springfield), Ricki refuses to give up on this second chance to make things right with her children.
Ricki and the Flash was penned by Diablo Cody, who broke out (and earned an Oscar) for her Juno screenplay in 2007, though reactions to her screenwriting work since then (on such films as Jennifer’s Body and Young Adult) have certainly been more contentious. Cody’s storyteller voice comes through strongly in Ricki, imbuing the film with moments of earnest familial drama as well as savvy cultural observation; where both Cody and Ricki‘s Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Beloved) fall short is with their presentation of the film’s themes and ideas. It’s fair to think of Ricki and the Flash as the less refined relative of Cody’s Juno and Demme’s Rachel Getting Married.
The Ricki character is a refreshingly messy and multi-faceted protagonist (thanks to a combination of Cody’s writing and Meryl Streep’s performance), but the movie’s other characters feel short-changed, in terms of their development. There’s not a weak link in the chain of Ricki and the Flash‘s cast as far as their acting is concerned, but most of their roles aren’t provided enough depth to amount to more than relatable, yet at the same time familiar (translation: stereotypical) archetypes. Cody’s screenplay also touches upon a number of worthwhile issues (about family, women’s career choices, and so forth), but tends to do so through heavy-handed dialogue more than comparatively subtle storytelling techniques. As mentioned before, the problem is the presentation, not the substance.
Demme’s direction on Ricki and the Flash does help to smooth out some of the wrinkles in the script. Visually, Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn (Admission) carefully distinguish Ricki and her fellow blue-collar types’ world (which is filmed with handheld and more naturalistic camera movement) from the hip white-collar world of her family (which is more carefully framed and polished in terms of filming style), while drawing out solid performances from the cast. At the same time, Demme is guilty of over-playing the film’s cultural clash comedy, relying on sitcom-esque cutaways to reaction shots of onlookers being scandalized by Ricki and her unconventional manner; the same goes for the movie’s pop-culture commentary (targeting subjects ranging from modern airport regulations to selfies), which tends to be funny yet ham-fisted.
Streep, to no surprise, does strong work here, bringing emotional weight (as well as some solid real-life singing and guitar-playing) to the Ricki character, making her a memorable protagonist and the film’s highlight. Streep’s scenes with Ricky Springfield also crackle, as the actor/musician brings emotional authenticity to his role (even when delivering on-the-nose dialogue), and he enjoys a relaxed onscreen romantic chemistry with Streep. The pair deliver a number of rousing renditions of popular songs – old and new – with their band (enough that Ricki and the Flash resembles a jukebox musical at some points), including the late Rick ‘Rick the Bass Player’ Rousa. However, those same musical sequences are a double-edged sword, as they do take away time that could’ve been used for more plot/thematic development.
Meanwhile, Streep and Mamie Gummer (Streep’s real-life daughter) have a pretty naturalistic screen chemistry, even while they’re playing a mother-daughter couple that’s very different from themselves. Gummer also settles nicely into an emotionally raw turn as Julie, a character whose breakdown has led her to being completely apathetic towards social norms and willing to speak the uncomfortable truths that everyone else dances around. If Julie (and her longtime emotional problems) was given a bit more development, she would be as good a character as Ricki and the Flash’s namesake.
Ricki’s other children aren’t given as much development or screen time as Julie, but actors Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Nick Westrate (Turn) deliver authentic performances all the same. Similarly, Kevin Kline (Last Vegas) and Audra McDonald (Private Practice) lend credibility to their respective roles, brining some emotional weight to characters with basic Type-A personalities – the hard-working, but nice, ex-husband and the supportive, well-composed, stepmother who’s never gotten her due credit from Ricki – and making the most of their screen time with Streep, in particular.
Ricki and the Flash is a half-baked comedy/drama, but the cast (including Meryl Streep’s aging rocker) makes it a charming one. In many ways, Ricki (the film) resembles its namesake; both are messy and weird in ways admirable and confusing alike, yet they’re so open and unapologetic about what they are that it’s difficult not to like them – at least a little, anyway. The movie isn’t a must-see in theaters, but for those of you who are die-hard fans of Meryl Streep, there’s enough to appreciate here that you may enjoy watching her musical melodrama on the big screen, flaws and all.
Ricki and the Flash is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 102 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief drug content, sexuality and language.
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