Ricki and the Flash (2015) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic material, brief drug content, sexuality and language
Running Time: 101 min.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt, Bernie Worrell, Rick Rosas, Joe Vitale
Small role: Bill Irwin, Charlotte Rae
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenplay: Diablo Cody
Review published August 9, 2015
Ricki Rendazzo (Streep, The Giver) is the lead singer of the house cover band at a small bar in Tarzana, California. It's not enough to pay the bills these days, so during the day, she can barely stay awake at her day job as a cashier at a pricey natural foods chain (Total Foods, the obvious substitute for Whole Foods), and she still broke enough to have to file for bankruptcy. She's gotten older physically, but inside, she's been the same hard rockin' free spirit she has been since she walked out of her family's life a couple of decades back. Out of the blue, Ricki gets a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kline, My Old Lady) that she should fly out to his home in Indianapolis and see if she can help deal with Julie (Gummer, Cake), her youngest daughter, who has been distraught, lashing out emotionally, and possibly suicidal since her husband unceremoniously dumped her for another woman. While there, pain from the past gets drawn up, as she not only has to deal with the man she cheated on, but also the three children she abandoned to head to LA to pursue her music career.
Ricki and the Flash is a dysfunctional family dramedy directed by Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme (The Manchurian Candidate, The Truth About Charlie), written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Jennifer's Body), who loosely based Ricki on her own musician mother-in-law), and starring Oscar-winning actors Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. That's a lot of talent to have together for what ends up being an unspectacular movie. Not that I found it to be a bad one, as it does hit its stride every so often, especially when characters are forced to confront one another, and finishes up quite strong, enough for me to give it a recommendation for those interested in the subject matter, although there are some thematic similarities to be sure with Danny Collins, which featured another older singer who tries to reunite with the offspring he never had time for while he pursued his career.
One of the more interesting ironies is how Ricki's pursuit of success is what has led to her into this life of poverty, loneliness and lack of family contact. Had she stayed put, she'd presumably be living quite well, in a community where she is known, and have the love of her family around her. Then again, she'd never know whether she could make it big in the rock-n-roll business (turns out, she couldn't), so there's something to be said for following one's dreams. The only question for the movie is whether she can repair years of neglect in her relationships with a family that has seemed to have gotten used to not having her in their lives.
There's also an ironic subtext to Cody's screenplay regarding politics, where she maintains a very conservative outlook on life while living in liberal Los Angeles, even though she's about to ask for a government handout by filing for bankruptcy, and working two jobs isn't enough to keep her in the black. Meanwhile, her very liberal family, living in a comparatively conservative Indianapolis, maintain their own positions, despite some wealth. Even the customers who can afford to shop at her upscale natural food store are nearly all on the left side of the spectrum. What that's really saying isn't so much that liberalism makes for wealth and conservatism makes for poverty, so much as, perhaps, that Cody is saying that those who have managed to progress with the times have an easier go than those who stubbornly cling to ideals and ways of life that have long since gone out of fashion. Ricki's attitudes on race and sexuality speak a lot to this clinging, as Cody seems to suggest that the only way for Ricki to have all of the things she really wants in life is to be able to change attitudes that have held her back for many years.
At this point, it will likely come as little surprise from anyone who has seen recent musicals like Into the Woods or Mamma Mia! to learn that Meryl Streep does indeed possess a very nice singing voice, and does very well covering such rock classics as "American Girl", "Drift Away", and "My Love Will Not Let You Down". There is a new original song called, "Cold One" that is sung a couple of times, once a capella, and one with her band, that will probably the best shot this film full of talent has to garner an Academy Award nomination. She's a phenomenal actress, of course, and a very competent singer, even if she doesn't fully embody the look and downtrodden outlook of a woman who has spent many years in dive bars and living in a near-destitute state. She still seems like Meryl Streep underneath the eyeliner, tats, jewelry and funky, half-braided hairstyles.
So, you get the expected solid performance from Streep, and Kevin Kline still delights whenever he's on screen thanks to his light-hearted charisma, but the real surprises go to supporting players like Streep's real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer, and 1980s heartthrob rock star and actor Rick Springfield. Gummar is the perfect choice to play the role, as she definitely has the right natural look for a daughter of Meryl, but the two also share an undeniable chemistry as mother and daughter that leads to some of the film's more affecting moments. Springfield has a lot of rust to shake off, acting-wise, but he does have presence, both as a musician and as a romantic player, enough for those who've long forgotten about him to want to see him so more work on the screen in the future.
There's enough dramatic connective tissue to give this story the oomph it needs to power through the tricky finale, scoring a couple of nice emotional beats,. and even find a way to turn the temp around to the point where it actually becomes a sort of feel-good movie to please the crowds who've grown invested in Ricki and her family plight. We learn that being a family isn't about being perfect, but it is about being accepting of one another's flaws and life decisions, even if they run completely contrary to those that we might make ourselves. Is Ricki deserving of love from the family she ditched? Definitely not in absentia, and perhaps even not just by her belated presence, but Cody does suggest that, sometimes, in order to fix the bridges one has burnt in life, we have to find a way to fix those things within ourselves that are incendiary. You can't expect everyone else to accept your shortcomings when you're constantly pointing out what you feel are theirs. It's an important lesson to learn, in a family, in a relationship, and, in a contented lifetime.
©2015 Vince Leo