Sony/TriStar (2015) 101 min. PG-13
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenplay: Diablo Cody
Cinematography: Declan Quinn; Editing: Wyatt Smith
Production Design: Stuart Wurtzel; Set Decoration: George DeTitta Jr.; Costumes: Ann Roth; Score: Mark Wolfson
Stars: Meryl Streep (Ricki Rendazzo), Kevin Kline (Pete), Mamie Gummer (Julie), Rick Springfield (Greg), Audra McDonald (Maureen), Sebastian Stan (Joshua), Nick Westrate (Adam), Ben Platt (Daniel), Charlotte Rae (Oma), Rick Rosas (Buster), Gabriel Ebert (Max), Joe Vitale (Joe)
Ricki and the Flash should have been so much better, perfectly encapsulating as it does many of the recurring themes that director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody have consistently gravitated to over the years. Cody, whose been amusingly open about her freewheeling past as a stripper before reinventing herself as an upstart intellectual and Oscar-winning screenwriter, has always stood out as something of a scandal even amid the less than provincial Hollywood community, the way Clara Bow did in the Roaring Twenties and Marilyn Monroe in the conservative ’50s.
So she clearly identifies with the tarnished Ricki character played by Meryl Streep in this movie (based on Cody’s real-life mother-in-law), a down on her luck, aspiring rock star, pushing sixty, who’s also regarded as something of a freakish disgrace by ex-husband Pete Brummel’s (Kevin Kline) affluent, gated community, the sort of community that’s erected those fences specifically to keep undesirables like her out. Having abandoned her three kids to their father’s care decades earlier to pursue her own show biz dreams, Ricki’s returned home to look after her suicidal daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) during a messy divorce. The screenplay for Cody’s film Juno, which won her the Oscar, and her almost as highly regarded follow-up Young Adult, whirled around a similar theme – children thrust by circumstances into too early adulthood and the irresponsible adult role models in their lives, who may as well still be children themselves regardless of age. Such is the case with mother and child here, and the casting of Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gumm as Julie couldn’t have been more canny. When the still emotionally distraught daughter relapses while walking down the aisle at her brother’s wedding and prepares to flee, we get a glimmer of the same panic that prompted her mother to take flight so many years ago. That Ricki proves the only person capable of talking her down indicates she’s finally got a handle on her own emotions. They even wear matching ankle boots to demonstrate solidarity.
In Handle with Care (Citizen’s Band), a comedy scored by Bill Conti about truckers and the ubiquitous CBs that allowed them to assume a plethora of flashy, false new personas, director Demme first betrayed his love for the sort of reshuffled soundtracks that form the fabric of our pop cultural subconscious. That was released all the way back in 1977, a date notably referenced in Ricki for having also witnessed the debut of Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s “American Girl,” and all these years later Demme, who went on to make the seminal Talking Head’s concert film Stop Making Sense, is still indulging that same unerring musical ear, expressing his fervent passion by way of the Streep character. Siphoning his enthusiasm for song through her, the director at least gives us an inkling of the artistic compulsions that have driven her to give up everything she’d amassed in life in order to ascend the stage of a low rent dive each night, where she holds down a semi-regular gig with front man Greg (Rick Springfield) and their group, The Flash.
When the movie begins, panning past the geezers comprising this band, talent night at the retirement home, it’s as if we were being set up for some ageist joke that never comes. And surely we aren’t meant to believe the overly enthusiastic response to their sets, all the whooping, whistling, clapping and foot stomping of the highly unlikely cross-section of clientele patronizing the bar – part-country, part-gay, part-black, part-punk rock. It’s like a flashing applause sign cuing our reaction. Still, there are compensations. Ricki and the Flash has been filled out with precious Diablo Codyisms that only the screenwriter could have devised, giving the impression of a larger life transpiring around the edges of the frame, such as the little shrine Ricki tends, dedicated to that brother just briefly mentioned as having died in Vietnam, perhaps the key event that made her realize how short and uncertain life is, inspiring her to chuck it all to pursue her dreams. And in a priceless, throwaway bit, much humor is drawn out of the length of time it takes this punk rocker to remove all the heavy metal hardware and body piercings she sports in order slip through the metal detector at the airport.
As with Demme’s Rosie the Riveter paean Swing Shift and his award-winning The Silence of the Lambs, he again depicts his embattled female lead as striving to persevere in a man’s world that doesn’t consider her suited to the profession she’s pursuing. Yet for all that, the director nearly fails to give the actress’ most bravura moment the proper emotional emphasis it demands. Her onstage breakdown, sparked by emotional sparring with Greg, the on-again, off-again lover she’s reticent to commit herself to (Rick Springfield brings an appealing air of earnest exhaustion to the part; he resembles Kris Kristofferson here), serves as dramatic revelation. It’s here where what the script has been trying to say about the sexual double standard for men and women who choose to obsessively pursue a career at the expense of all else, sharpens into focus.
Being condemned by a judgmental society that considers what’s good for the goose to be unseemly for the gander ruffles Ricki’s feathers no end, causing us to feel less alienated from this presumably bad mother we, like everyone else in the film, automatically respond to with a negative, knee-jerk reaction for having abandoned her family to selfishly chase after her own dreams. But even when we want to like Ricki, or at least pity her in her Norma Desmond delusion, her braids keep getting in the way, forcing us to respond to her in the same way everyone else in the film does, as an aesthetic eyesore. Just because women on principle have the same right as any aging male rocker to make fools of themselves by refusing to act their age, doesn’t mean they should. Surely this isn’t the current state of equal rights in our post-feminist age with Ricki doggedly trying to live out her fantasy life of sex, drugs and rock and roll at a time in life when the sight of her in ‘hooker makeup’ and tight leather no longer has the effect it’s meant too. She appears more garish and ghoulish than comely, having become an anachronistic absurdity. A flash in the pan that never was, she’s reached a point where it must be as clear to her as it is to everyone else that she’s never going to make it to the big time. But Cody’s script fails to satisfactorily reveal what keeps driving her on, pulling her back to the spotlight, compelling her to spend her days in a thankless, dead end job as a supermarket checkout girl just so she can while away her nights wailing.
Comparisons have been made with Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, which also used the occasion of a family wedding to prove Anne Hathaway’s self-destructive black sheep could pull herself together and clean up nice. But perhaps more than anything, Ricki bears closest resemblance to Melanie Griffith’s social rebel in the director’s Something Wild. In that film, Griffith also refused to acknowledge her given name, inventing a new, scandalous identity for herself that belied her conservative past, tarted herself up in gothic black and wore too much heavy makeup in order to shake up the staid, conservative characters she came in contact with, only to tone it down for a fancy dress occasion. This motif, in which characters are constantly reinventing themselves, making over their identities from scratch, is endemic to Demme’s entire body of work. Ricki could almost be Griffith’s Audrey thirty years on, and likely met her own husband, played by Kevin Kline, the same way Griffith did Jeff Daniels in the 1986 film.
Like Daniels who tried to slip out of a restaurant without paying his check, Kline too has his own clandestine streak of rebelliousness as evidenced by the illegal stash of weed he keeps in the freezer for ‘migraines’ and the fact that he daringly married outside his race, two things he just doesn’t, on the surface, seem like the sort to ever do. With Streep in the lead, a lifetime of other movie memories are conferred upon the part as well. In Kramer vs. Kramer, her breakthrough big screen role for instance, we witnessed her abandoning husband and child to seek out her own identify. Since we’d watched her do it once before, audiences are made to feel like they were right there in the bosom of the Brummel family when she walked out on them as well. Sparking the incomparable chemistry only possible between living legends, she’s reunited with Kevin Kline, her old co-star from Sophie’s Choice, the movie that secured Streep’s present reputation as Hollywood’s finest actress and her second Oscar. In that one she played the penultimate bad mother, forced to make the titular choice between her children. Though Kline’s fine in the more comic moments he seems stiff, as he usually does, when doing straight drama. But the two have been accorded a charming moment of passing fancy, when inebriated ex-husband and wife appear close to rekindling the flame before, older and wiser, coming to their senses and thinking better of it.
We can see and hear how, all appearances aside, certain reactionary thinking bred into Ricki during her former life still burns through, such as in her references to the mess the administration is in under a black president, and her behavior toward her openly gay son Adam (Nick Westrate). She espouses a more conservative philosophy than her husband, giving away the ritzy, upper-crust background she originally hailed from. But as she feels her way back into her previous existence, making peace with it and the resentful children she abandoned, she loosens up considerably, opening her closed mind. She begins to walk a talk more suited to the wild, anything goes hard rock lifestyle she aspires to. The more she realizes she needn’t fear losing her hard fought for individual identity by simply conceding to be around her family, the more she begins letting love back in without fearing becoming trapped by it.
But I think where Cody’s script and Demme’s direction fall short, is in bringing out what would seem to be the movie’s main theme. Ricki is meant to have abandoned her upwardly mobile, buttoned down existence because the repression and conformity was slowly strangling the life out of her, just as it appears to be doing her children, who have no coping mechanism to deal with the messiness of life when it turns out to be less than perfect. She’s a savior returned to rescue them, drawing them back into the silly, sweaty, embarrassing dance of life. But who is oppressing them? Their father and stepmother are depicted as idealized dreams of emotionally nourishing acceptance.
Apart from those fogeys from the Four Hundred, who gape at Ricki as if she’d turned green when she arrives at the wedding reception, the movie gives us no clear indication of why her grown kids feel it imperative to conform to the pressures of their community, leaving us to draw our own conclusion by forming connections between cause and effect. Maybe they’re simply swinging to the conservative extreme in response to their mother’s behavior, a backward form of teenage rebellion. The movie is structured to give each of her kids the chance to let her have it, laying into her with a lifetime of pent up resentments and regrets the way Liv Ullman did in Autumn Sonata. From their perspective Ricki’s made out to seem like a selfish mother of the me generation who placed self-realization, striking out to find herself, ahead of self-sacrifice to husband and home, as other women her age were brought up to do. Her uptight brood prove embarrassed for it to be whispered about that she’s an immediate relation, and the sentimental strings from Stella Dallas allow Streep to hold her head high and play martyred Mother Valiant. Yet just as we think she’s made an abominable spectacle of herself by performing at the wedding reception before the horrified guests, growling out lyrics that place her in direct conflict with the privileged class they represent, her extended family come through for her, Little Miss Sunshine fashion, as she had for them in a pinch, proving that they too can be depended on when down and out. Ricki and the Flash wraps on this precious note, resolving itself into a conventional, mainstream family film, which certainly seems strange considering it originally set out to celebrate the free-spirited, marginalized others of the world, the sort of folk not bound by such conventions.
Instead Demme and Diablo truckle under, trying to make the Ricki character adorably defiant. Surprisingly however, the movie cavalierly reverses other standing conventions of family comedy-dramas. Rather than using the ethnic characters as emotionally abandoned, effusive types as is so often the case with Hollywood, in Ricki and the Flash they’re more uptight than the whites are. Never before have this many black folk been seen comprising the old guard, a bastion of bred in the bone bourgeoisie. Should we blame the Obama administration, as Ricki does, for the seismic shift in representation? From this film, one would think blacks had become the very institutionalized establishment they protested against in the ’60s.
Streep’s deep-seated racial resentments are accorded a sexual basis here, something not often seen in mainstream movies, arising as they do from the fact that the husband she claims still loves her married in that direction himself after she left him. She takes particular umbrage that she’s been replaced in the family not just by another woman, but a black one at that. As played by commanding Broadway legend Audra McDonald, who has more Tony awards than Streep has Oscars, the confrontation between the two is the stuff of acting gold. Even if the argument, predicated on that old chestnut concerning whether nurture or nature constitutes real motherhood (shades of Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts in Stepmom!) doesn’t build properly, seeming to peter out, it still miraculously manages not to reduce either woman to conventional, catty villainy or idealized sainthood. When the film tries to score deeper points though, such as the commentary on the racial shift between the haves and have nots in this country, it hits a hollow note.
Streep’s performance has been given the floor here, but she plays the part with an inappropriate sense of vulnerable temerity which is frustrating at those points, such as when confronting her wounded daughter’s swinish ex-husband, we most want her to display some righteous rage or at least some electric flashes of flinty anger, something to show us the spirited fire and fight of a woman who could have done what she chose to do with her life. It comes out only briefly at that wedding reception, when she goes little drummer boy, giving her neglected eldest son Joshua (Sebastian Stan) the only thing she can afford, the gift of her voice in a musical dedication. But a question is raised by this feel good ending. If Ricki hardly has the money to get herself to her son’s wedding, forcing Greg to sell his cherished guitar, how in the world does she mange to fly in her entire entourage?
Clearly Streep, who has operatic training, doesn’t feel as if her vocal talents were fully mined over the past decade in A Prairie Home Companion, Mamma Mia! and Into the Woods, nor richly enough rewarded. So again she proffers her pipes unsolicited, intent on pricking up our ears until we take some definite notice. But while the actress may lower her tonal pitch to a rocker’s growl, her voice is only iffy, too often falling flat, especially in duets opposite a professional musician like Rick Springfield, who can hold a stage the way the actress can the screen. And so as not to offer any additional competition to the star McDonald, criminally, isn’t permitted to sing a lick, not even at the end when everyone else joins Ricki onstage.
We can’t be quite sure whether Streep purposely makes the character seem only moderately talented to explain why she’s never succeeded as a musician on a major level in the rock and roll field, the way Jennifer Jason Leigh did in Georgia, or if this is the full extent of the actress’ widely acclaimed vocal range. Until the finale, there seems to be nothing truly special about the many musical sets, despite Demme’s attempt to whip up our excitement by repeatedly cutting back to the audience who seem to be having the time of their lives.
There’s an original song “Cold One,” penned by indie rock songwriting duo Johnathan Rice and Jenny Lewis, and a nice selection of more familiar melodies by music coordinator Mark Wolfson, perhaps the movie’s most important contribution. But eventually all there is to keep us engaged during the numbers is the Fleetwood Mac level dramatic tension generated by the standing lovers’ quarrel played out publicly between Ricki and Greg, giving us, like their captive audience, the uneasy feeling of being caught in the middle of a private marital spat out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And unfortunately, by way of compensation, there’s precious little indication of the shared love of music that’s meant to have bonded them in the first place.