'Ricki and the Flash'
Some of the best movies by director Jonathan Demme (‘Melvin and Howard’, ‘Rachel Getting Married’) serve up oddballs and outcasts with such love and humor that you feel like you know the characters as friends. The best movies written by Diablo Cody (‘Young Adult’) take a more unforgiving and cynical approach to self-imposed outcasts deserving of their fates. ‘Ricki and the Flash’ isn’t the best movie either of them has made, but it boasts an intriguing combination of the filmmakers’ most endearing traits, plus Meryl Streep.
Streep stars as that Ricki gal you may have heard about from the title. By day she toils away at a grocery store. At night, she entertains the bejesus out of the handful of semi-happy patrons at a small L.A. dive with her band The Flash. (The lead guitarist and also her kind-of boyfriend is Rick Springfield.) She’s in her 60s but still has the asymmetrical haircut, big leather boots and long dangling jewellery that she was probably too old to wear twenty years ago. She also has a family, not that she’s paid much attention. She ran out on her husband (Kevin Kline, playing delightfully awkward as only he can) and three children to start a music career that never really took off.
Now it’s time for Ricki to have a long overdue homecoming since her daughter (Mamie Gummer, also Streep’s actual daughter) recently suffered a sudden divorce that left her suicidal. This of course entails of those return trips home that tend to make you existential (or at least temporarily alcoholic).
Ricki is an intriguing contradiction of a character. She’s at once wild and free and Bohemian, yet also a Bush supporter (rationalizing it as wanting to “Support the troops” after the death of her brother in Vietnam). She’s both unwilling to follow anyone else’s path and filled with regret for what she lost. She has a special connection with her daughter, but is undeniably a horrible mother. Undoubtedly, a movie could have been made from Cody’s script in which Ricki comes off as a bleakly comedic monster. However, both Demme and Streep are incapable of approaching a character with any sense of cynicism. The movie might pause for harsh truths and acknowledge deep flaws, but ultimately Streep cares deeply for Ricki and Demme’s camera loves her. It’s hard not to fall for that lovably battered old gal and Streep’s sweetly nutty performance.
The best section of the movie comes right in the middle, when Streep and Gummer share firework friction while dressed like aliens in the Midwestern setting (Streep due to kooky fashion, Gummer due to ill-kempt depression). It’s funny, moving and honest mother/daughter bonding, yet with wounds that can never be properly healed. Kline also serves up a hysterically uptight father with no clue of how to handle the two women he loves. His scenes would feel like awkward sketch comedy were it not for the way Demme pulls utter honesty out of his actors. It’s a wonderful little mini-movie. Around that, the rest of the film is dedicated to Ricki’s broken D-level rock star life, and that’s where things start to falter.
As warmly moving and cynically funny as the family sequences in the movie might feel, any scene in which Streep and Demme get caught up with Ricki’s band can get a little weary. Demme’s love of music is as deep as his love of oddballs, and that becomes indulgent here. The first time we see Streep belt out a rock cover with her eccentric band in a glossy/grimy fake bar, it’s kind of charming. Unfortunately, there must be at least twenty minutes worth of those covers in ‘Ricki and the Flash’, which gets to be tiring. The best songs have subtext relevant to the story. The worst are there simply because Demme and Streep had too much fun building their sad little rock world. The movie would be improved by cutting out at least half the songs (or at least not playing them all the way through), but sadly the director and star wouldn’t dream of doing that. (They even cram a few more into the credits.)
Ultimately, the lovable Demme is far too much of a warm-hearted humanist to give ‘Ricki and the Flash’ anything less than a happy ending that it doesn’t quite deserve. Ricki and her family are too complicatedly flawed and comedic for the rousing finish they receive, which ironically makes the ending a little unsatisfying. There’s no denying or ignoring the movie’s flaws and yet, like the title character herself, those flaws are part of the shaggy dog appeal. The movie is a bit of a mess, just a mess with such high notes and heart that it’s impossible to hate. It’s fluffy fun that’s more complicated, funny, well-produced and richly performed than it has any right to be. This isn’t a movie that will go down as the pinnacle of the career of anyone involved, but it will be a pleasant surprise for anyone who stumbles upon it with measured expectations.