Friday, August 07, 2015

Ricki and the Flash

Meryl Streep doesn’t seem comfortable in the early scenes of Jonathan Demme‘s Ricki and the Flash. Streep plays Ricki (real name Linda), a L.A. bar-band musician whose dreams of stardom led her to leave her Midwestern family years before. When Ricki gets a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) that their daughter Julie (Streep’s daughter Mamie Gummer) has been left by her husband, she returns to Indianapolis and a to a family that had given her up. If Ricki and the Flash were a different, lesser movie it might have revealed Ricki’s hidden genius or led to a scene of deep reconciliation between Ricki and her children, but writer Diablo Cody isn’t one for taking the easy way out. That discomfort Streep plays is true to Cody’s script, because Ricki isn’t very good at life.

Ricki and her band (“The Flash”) have settled into a steady house-band gig; they have a way with classic rock covers - not so much with “Bad Romance” - and Ricki has even edged into a tentative romance with her guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield). Demme and Cody treat Ricki’s L.A. scene with affection, but her life isn’t romanticized. There’s a regular crowd of dancers and drinkers at Ricki’s bar. Jonathan Demme hasn’t lost his eye for casting odd-looking faces, but he also doesn’t shy away from Ricki’s shabby apartment or her demeaning job at “Total Foods”. But the heart of Ricki and the Flash is in the Indianapolis scenes, and it’s good to see that Cody hasn’t lost her taste for trolling what she sees as emotionally stultifying Midwestern life. As good as Streep is, my favorite thing in Ricki and the Flash is Mamie Gummer as Julie, who - wearing an X T-shirt and drinking kombucha - has an first scene worthy of Gena Rowlands in a Cassavetes film. Later there’s a spectacularly awkward family dinner that Julie disrupts with truth-telling; Gummer is so raw I’d almost believe she’d been directed to improvise. Ricki and Julie seem to be making progress, but the Indianpolis idyll (which includes a pot-smoking scene involving Kline’s Pete) is interrupted by the return of Pete’s new wife Maureen (Audra McDonald). Maureen is the most formulaic thing about the film, she exists solely to threaten Ricki’s new connection to her family and even McDonald can’t do much with so little screen time.

The last act of Ricki and the Flash involves Ricki’s attendance at the wedding of her son (Sebastian Stan). It’s to Cody and Demme’s credit that there’s genuine tension over whether or not Ricki will misbehave or be driven out of town by uptight country-clubbers. Compare the wedding scenes here and in Demme’s Rachel’s Getting Married. The scowling faces that greet Ricki’s toast are, the film seems to suggest, are of a world that Ricki’s son and his bride are orbiting whether either know it or not while the wedding in Rachel is a multicultural group hug. All this to say that Ricki and the Flash is that rarest of films, one with a strong writer’s point of view. Cody is emotionally honest enough to write a script about two people who never should have gotten married, except they did. The film ends with a small triumph while also not shirking the fact that more complications lie ahead. Ricki and the Flash is, finally, the marriage of three of cinema’s great humanists - Demme, Cody, and Streep. Also, you can dance to it.

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