There is really nothing that the extraordinary Meryl Streep cannot do. By now, this should be obvious thanks to a multitude of ‘for-the-ages’ performances and an unassailable, near peerless oeuvre. So, it’s agreed. Streep is capable of anything, and now we should add to her list of accomplishments persuasively pulling off the role of an aging, 50-something rocker who abandoned her family and kids to pursue her dream of rock-and-roll stardom. Streep’s captivating turn in “Ricki And The Flash” exudes stage presence, natch. But her performance not only includes very credible on screen guitar playing, but further dimensions to her sweet, soulful singing voice — part angelic Joni Mitchell lilt mixed with the honeydew gravel of Stevie Nicks ragged croon — that goes beyond the mellifluousness of “Into The Woods.”
Once Meryl Streep commits to a role, it’s arguably up to the director, cast, and crew to match her abundant magnetic qualities. And perhaps that’s the biggest problem with “Ricki And The Flash,” a patchy family drama wherein no one element is as good or convincing as its lead star who carries the movie in every frame. Directed by Jonathan Demme (“Something Wild,” “The Silence Of The Lambs”) and written by Diablo Cody (“Juno”), the uneven film centers on Streep’s Ricki Rendazzo (née Linda Brummell), the aforementioned raucous rocker who left a husband and three kids behind several decades ago to chase her musical aspirations. While those ambitions haven’t amounted to much — she leads local celebrity bar band, The Flash, who crank out lively covers of Tom Petty, U2, Bruce Springsteen, The Edgar Winter Group and more— the minor notoriety and attention appears to be more than enough for Ricki’s live-in-the-moment ego.
A movie that grapples with identity — the impulsive Ricki doesn’t want to apologize for who she is and yet struggles with the choices she’s made —‘Ricki’ has its own personality crisis. The picture comes alive in its opening moments as The Flash break into a cover of Tom Petty And The Heartbreaker’s “American Girl,” and really, there’s a glint and electrical spark to the picture every time The Flash is kicking out the jams. But the rest of the film never feels as emotionally invested. In fact, so much more is said when two musicians are sharing a smile from opposite sides of the stage than any would-be witty Diablo Cody-penned dialogue.
With this schism in place, the movie’s energy quickly dissipates when the narrative has to deal with what really should be paramount: human connection and the painful lack thereof. And as the formula repeats, live performance back to dialogue, and back again, it becomes clear the film’s director is either more interested in the vibrant moments of performance or simply has better facility with that material. It’s as if the Jonathan Demme of “Stop Making Sense” and “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” turned up to direct, not the Oscar-winning helmer behind movies like “Philadelphia.” While the music is raw, unpolished and dirty in the best sense, when the stage lights go down, the movie feels flat; as if a locked down tripod and master shots are stifling to the filmmaker’s soul.
Streep, as usual, is terrific and at least makes the movie watchable. Perhaps in the wrong hands, this role could have been disastrously embarrassing. Streep’s Ricki is a fully dimensional, flawed, selfish human working a grocery store cash register by day and rocking out with her bar band The Flash by night. But it’s never enough.
Perhaps because of its Midwest setting of Indiana, where Ricki returns to visit her family, or perhaps because Cody wanted to try something less heavy than “Young Adult,” ‘Ricki’ lacks a little bite and suffers from a bit of neither-here-nor-there qualities. The film’s not quite tame enough to qualify for MOR radio play (though its less edgy PG-13 presence is felt), but it’s not a wild pirate radio station either. While the Brummell family are clearly dysfunctional, their resentments and pains are rendered in relatively polite fashion. Cody gets in her quips of course, but not all of them land as well as they used to (though perhaps you can breath a sigh of relief that the pop culture references aren’t as jammed in your face this time around).
The movie’s refusal to pitch itself too brusquely or too sotto voce may seem admirable, but its lack of assertiveness causes issues early on. For one, the film’s inciting incident is rather wishy washy; Ricki has been estranged from her family for decades and the visits and Christmas appearances have all but diminished over the years. But all it takes is doyen and ex-husband Peter Brummel (Kevin Kline) and one semi-desperate phone call to the reluctant and rather apathetic Ricki because their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) has fallen into a deep depression following her divorce, and the wannabe rockstar is spending her last dime to fly back home and visit (and the fact that there’s a darker form of persuasion left lying to be revealed later is puzzling).
Once Ricki arrives, the Brummel family she was once the matriarch of butt heads and argue, but eventually, the protagonist looks to make things right with her family. That is until it’s pretty apparent this kind of sentimental closure is out of reach. Ricki goes home, largely defeated, but a wedding invitation in the last act may repair the rifts a little bit if it all doesn’t turn into a disaster. Ricki arriving in Indiana to potentially make amends should be the movie, instead it’s equivalent to a narrative layover. This curious flyby may work in an shaggy Robert Altman movie, but it doesn’t quite come together here.
One can’t help but compare Demme’s latest to “Rachel Getting Married” another movie with narcissistic, damaged characters that also culminates at a wedding. But whereas ‘Rachel’ sparked with bitter honesty, unflinching performances and formal personality to spare, “Ricki And The Flash” feels like a much more anonymous and safer work in contrast, more content with pleasant laughs at the expense of what feels like real emotional meat to work with. Demme also feels like a gun for hire who never draws outside the lines until Ricki has a mic or guitar in her hand. The director excels at capturing the dynamic boozy, kinetic feel of live performances, but anything that’s not on a stage feels largely uninspired. Perhaps there is a polite authorial war within the movie too; neither director or writer want to impose their will too much, but both are concerned about stepping on the other’s toes. It’s hard to say why ‘Ricki’ feels otherwise so unseasoned.
Co-starring Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan and rocker Rick Springfield as the guitar player Ricki refuses to commit to — which cues a distracting romantic subplot — if there’s a rookie player that shines in the ensemble, it’s certainly the star’s daughter Mamie Gummer. She’s got gusto and grit and it’s a shame that “Ricki And The Flash” doesn’t give her more to do (perhaps an even more fascinating version of this movie would be seeing the movie through her eyes and how her trainwreck of a mother’s and her appearance is like gasoline on her already-inflamed psyche).
The film tries to deliver catharsis on the audience in its half baked final moments, but the hard-fought tune is never truly earned. “Ricki And the Flash” is about mistakes, regrets, and of course, redemption, but all of it feels a little too neat, familiar and convenient even if no one’s quite belting out “Kumbaya” by the end. Ultimately, “Ricki And The Flash” feels like more of a product of its writer than its director. Demme may provide moments of partisan muscular brio, but the subdued rest of the picture and its lackadaisical rhythm feels a bit more like Diablo Cody unplugged. [C]