August 07, 2015

Ricki and the Flash

When we talk about Meryl Streep, our words are often tinged with a knee-jerk reverential awe for the Grande Dame of Hollywood. Streep performances are not just performances, but “transformations.” For Meryl Streep’s champions, greatness is assumed, and any Meryl Streep movie is worth seeing simply because she’s in it. On the other hand, there are plenty of Meryl Streep deniers; they may be reacting to the fact that Streep seems to be off-limits to critics. But this wasn’t always the case. Streep, like Katharine Hepburn, had periods during which people rolled their eyes at her and her movies were panned by critics and audiences alike. But—and here’s where I cannot help but admire Meryl Streep—the actress stuck it out and worked hard. The current era of Streep-as-Queen did not come cheaply for her, so I do not want to attack her simply because she’s made it to the top and earned three hundred Academy Award nominations. She’s earned my respect.

However, the idea that great performances happen only when an actor “transforms” herself into the role is false. Point: One of the best Meryl Streep performances you will ever see is her portrayal of the mean romance novelist in She-Devil, the 1988 Roseanne Barr comedy in which Streep’s character steals Barr’s family from her, incurring Roseanne’s wrath. Meryl Streep is genuinely funny in She-Devil, and while I don’t think Streep is a pampered bitch in real life, the performance doesn’t feel forced or hard to reach. The role doesn’t require some magnificent industrial-light-and-magic metamorphosis. She doesn’t have a fancy accent or a lot of face-altering make-up; she’s not playing older or younger than she actually is. She’s just acting. Granted, the movie is a fairly mediocre comedy, but it sometimes achieves brilliance, and Streep's performance is one of the best things in that film. But few people compliment her for something like She-Devil, because it's not The Iron Lady or something else that's been plumbed for prestige. 

Ricki and the Flash represents yet another transformation-performance for Streep, and, like many of the previous ones, it’s a bit too much. She undoubtedly pours herself into it, but there’s something manufactured about Ricki Rendazzo. She's a not-even-has-been musician whose cover band The Flash performs crappy rock hits to lukewarm crowds at a dive-bar in L.A. By day, Ricki is a cashier at Total Foods. (An obvious reference to Whole Foods; I could write a whole review about the movie’s strange, funny, unexpected portrayal of hipster-culture.) 

Ricki offers a handful of musical numbers, where Streep showcases her perfectly raspy voice and her somehow not very credible female rock star fashion choices. I’m not sure what Joan Jett is wearing these days, but Debbie Harry hasn’t stopped being a fashion icon just because she’s reached “a certain age.” Ricki’s costumes feel like a 40-year-old middle class white person’s conception of a rock ‘n’ roll diva. It covers all the basics but feels inauthentic, too staged. And then she wears it for the entire movie—even the magic hair. Wouldn’t most people want to get out of those tight-fitting clothes into something more comfortable after a hard night’s work? Ricki is basically an action figure: her costume is as permanent as her American-flag tattoo. (Oh, and what about Ricki's blatantly right-wing politics? I could do a whole essay on that too.)

The film, which was written by Diablo Cody (loosely based on her own mother-in-law) and directed by Jonathan Demme, is a family drama laced with feel-good emotional beats masquerading as themes, all of them obvious, like “I LOVE MY KIDS” and “THE POWER OF MUSIC,” most of them accompanied by the top ten overplayed American rock songs of the past 40 years. At least they didn’t sing “Life is a Highway.” It’s probably on the soundtrack.

The family drama offers a few sparks. Here’s the setup: Ricki left her family (husband Peter and three kids) years ago to pursue a career in music. Peter (Kevin Kline) remarried, to Maureen (Audra McDonald), who raised the three kids as her own but insisted that they send their wayward mom Mother’s Day cards every year. (She tells Ricki this in their big scene together.) Maureen is a flawless human being. She’s beautiful, intelligent, dresses nicely, and is apparently a terrific cook. She’s also disgustingly right and practical and together, all of the time. (The scene between Ricki and Maureen feels like a parent-teacher conference, in which Maureen is the teacher and Ricki is the student.) She even offers Ricki money to pay for her flight home, in a moment of painful condescension.

Ricki’s daughter Julie (played by real-life Streep daughter Mamie Gummer) has just been left by her husband, for another woman. Julie is angry and suicidal, and when Ricki comes “home” to Indianapolis to care for her, the old anger she has for her mom rushes right to the surface. The sparks between mother and daughter are one of the best things in the movie. Gummer’s performance is funny and salty and tough. She also lets herself look like a woman going through hell. Her hair is mussed up and scruffy and she walks around in a long black T-shirt and pajama pants. She's venomous toward her mom, although that venom quickly runs out only to be replaced with the love she still feels for her mother. And here’s where Ricki turns into a real human being and not just a caricature of a rock diva: Ricki has more dignity and self-respect than just about anyone else in the movie, especially in the big dinner scene, where one of her sons hurls insults at her while the other one awkwardly tries to keep her from finding out about his forthcoming nuptials.

The film plays all its cards in the first act. After the dinner scene, there’s the expected sparring between Maureen and Ricki, after which Ricki retreats to L.A. The problems between Ricki and Julie seem to have been solved, but not much else is, and the film plods through a sloppy middle territory with bad musical montages, awaiting its own too-triumphant third act. There are a few obvious personal revelations for Ricki (“I LOVE MY KIDS”), which of course you’ve already scene in the film’s trailer.

The complexity that Diablo Cody and Jonathan Demme develop in the first third of the movie never takes shape. When Ricki returns to L.A. for her son’s wedding (coaxed by a sweet but condescending gesture from Maureen), she and her boyfriend Greg (played by Rick Springfield of “Jessie’s Girl” fame) stick out like two tattoed middle fingers at a gathering of rich, well-dressed pointers. It’s too much. But then Ricki and her band does a surprise song for her son and terrified hipster-daughter-in-law and THE POWER OF MUSIC conquers all.

I had a pretty good time at Ricki and the Flash despite all my misgivings. There are quite a few laughs. But the movie is ultimately unsatisfying, especially from the director of Stop Making Sense. Ricki and the Flash has energy and weirdness and charm, but the movie needed to be worked out more carefully, and its gooey, obvious themes undercut the more adult, thoughtful conflicts at work between the characters. 

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