Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ricki and the Flash

Director: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mammie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt, Rick Springfield
Running Time: 101 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The most rewarding aspect of the safe but satisfying Ricki and the Flash is seeing Meryl Streep actually appearing to have fun on screen again rather than headlining another project that exists solely for her to earn an Oscar nomination. The problem with those dramas was never her performance, but that the material too often couldn't equal the skill she brought to them. If you're Streep it doesn't matter, but for critics and audiences who have to sit through them, each new film brought the realization that she may never be challenged again, stuck dragging mediocre material over the finish line during awards season. So despite boasting an acclaimed (if somewhat inconsistent) director in Jonathan Demme, it kind of comes as a relief that no such lofty expectations accompany this or her work in it. Or at least it doesn't consciously feel like it this time.

There's very little at stake here dramatically and that's fine. While Streep's performance still unquestionably carries everything, this is entertaining mainstream fluff, and as backhanded a compliment as that seems, it doesn't do much wrong. And neither does she. So yes,it's really Streep singing, and for what's asked from the character, she delivers in spades. The same can mostly be said of the film, which is fun and succeeds at what it's trying to do within its fairly constricting, predictable formula.

Decades after abandoning her family to pursue her dreams of becoming a famous rock star, Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) works as a cashier while playing gigs at a small bar with her band, the Flash, who perform enthusiastic covers of everything from Tom Petty to Lady Gaga.  Receiving a call from her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline) that estranged daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer) has slipped into a severe depression after her husband left her for another woman, Ricki flies from California to Indianapolis to be with her. Only Julie resents her, with Ricki having been such a spectacularly absent parent when it really counted that even her two sons can barely tolerate this homecoming.

Ricki's own life isn't much less of a mess, as she continues to uncomfortably deny (sometimes onstage) the existence of her very real relationship with lead guitarist, Greg (Rick Springfield). Always saying and doing just the wrong thing at just the wrong time, this family crisis forces her to not only reconnect with her adult kids and become a parent, but learn how to finally become a responsible adult herself.

We know that Streep can hit hit the necessary emotional beats this story requires in her sleep so the big question is how she fairs as a singer and performer on stage. And it's a loaded one. Since Ricki really isn't supposed to be this incredible talent that somehow slipped through the cracks of the music industry, but an older, well traveled, raspy voiced bar singer whose best days long passed, Streep's work needs to be judged within that context. So taken for what it is, she's actually very good, and even if sometimes it doesn't appear that she's playing guitar, that honestly didn't bother me much either. She's an actress rather than a musician and having one of the best in the role seems to be a fair enough trade-off.

The band's opening performance of Petty's "American Girl" did have me worried though, until remembering no one's ever really covered it well, or could be expected to. She finds her groove with just about everything that follows, especially a somewhat interesting re-arrangement of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Streep also performs the film's only original song, "A Cold One," written by Jenny Lewis, and while it's a good song delivered well from the actress, I couldn't help but imagine how much better it would sound if Lewis was singing it instead. Assuming it's nominated for Best Original song, we may actually find out.

If I'm dwelling on the music that's only because there's so much of it, which is a plus. Demme stands his ground enough to at least give us entire performances rather than just snippets of gigs, and while an argument could be made that this was done to pad a fluffy narrative, he does it at the risk of potentially exposing Streep's shortcomings as a singer and musician, which was gutsy. That gamble paid off since the band holds our attention and whatever the actress lacks in that department she more than compensates for in the authenticity she brings to her onscreen relationship with her real-life daughter, Mammie Gummer.

For a change, it's nice not to worry about clearing the casting hurdle of mother-daughter believability since they're not only really mother and daughter, but share an identical resemblance to boot. Of course, none of that would matter if it didn't effectively translate to the screen, which it does, as both share a natural shorthand that make their scenes together some of the strongest, particularly Julie's breakdown scenes.

Getting past the fact that Kevin Kline's almost comedically reserved Pete was once actually married to Ricki hardly matters since Kline is such a seasoned pro at playing the straight man to absurd characters. And while singer and former soap star Springfield fares about as well in his role as a heartfelt, grungy guitarist as Streep does in his rock star realm, the film's best performance is actually a smaller one in terms of screen. As Pete's current wife, Maureen, Audra McDonald defies expectations by actually playing this woman as a sane, composed, thoughtful person, who also makes it firmly clear she's open to having Ricki in all their lives, provided she shapes up, and fast. McDonald goes toe-to-toe with Streep in the film's single best scene, so sensitively navigated and performed by the former that it's hardly a stretch to say this entire story would have been more compelling if told from her character's perspective.

The ending either represents some kind of breakthrough for Ricki, or further proof that this is a woman who just can't resist making everything about herself. But in even making it about herself yet again, she still finds this roundabout way of reconnecting to her family, albeit under her terms. As odd as that seems, it does manage to feel completely true to the character. What doesn't fly is an out of left (or rather right) field attempt to make Ricki a conservative Republican just because someone thought it would be a hilarious reversal of expectations. It's not, nor are some of the distracting, eye popping performances from the extras at the wedding who can't stop staring at Ricki like she's just arrived from outer space. The point is clear but Demme should have definitely reined that in.

Diablo Cody's screenplay is easily the most conventional work she's penned, which is ironic considering it's partly based on her mother's experiences. But in this case, that might not be a criticism since she seemed overdue for something a little more mainstream and less polarizing. Still, it's surprising to discover the writer of Juno, Young Adult and Jennifer's Body is attached to a project you could picture characters in those films mocking.

There will undoubtedly be comparisons made to last year's slightly superior Al Pacino picture, Danny Collins, and for good reason. The basic premise of an aging rocker struggling to reconnect with their estranged family is nearly identical, with both even working in similar ways. The problem of fewer complex roles being written for aging actors and actresses isn't solved or even addressed with Ricki and the Flash, but despite its flaws it provides just the right dose of entertainment you'd expect.  

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