3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, sexuality, brief profanity and mild drug content
By Derrick Bang
I haven’t been this nervous about a wedding toast since the aggressively unstable Anne Hathaway seized the microphone, in 2008’s Rachel Getting Married.
Come to think of it, that film also was directed by Jonathan Demme. He must have a thing about weddings...
|Julie (Mamie Gummer, far left), Ricki (Meryl Streep) and Pete (Kevin Kline) chortle over|
fading photographs and other memorabilia from long-ago times, when they still lived
together as an actual family.
Meryl Streep’s Ricki Rendazzo isn’t unstable, but she’s a social misfit and family pariah in every other respect: a free spirit who, decades earlier, abandoned a husband and three children — Julie, Joshua and Daniel — in order to pursue a rock ’n’ roll career in sunny California. Now reduced to leading the house band at a hole-in-the-wall San Fernando bar dubbed the Salt Well, Ricki’s few faithful fans number bar flies and struggling blue-collar regulars who show up nightly to stave off lives of (we assume) quiet desperation.
But one thing: an important thing. Ricki truly can rock, as proven each evening, when she and her band cover popular power anthems such as “American Girl,” “Wooly Bully” and “Keep Playing that Rock ’n’ Roll.” Which begs an obvious question: Is there anything Streep can’t do? Because yes, that’s her own voice and bad-ass self, and she also learned enough rhythm guitar licks to look credible on camera.
Ricki and the Flash represents a crowd-pleasing comeback for scripter Diablo Cody, who stalled after winning that well-deserved Academy Award for 2007’s Juno. The immediate follow-ups — Jennifer’s Body and Young Adult — were disappointing, to say the least; happily, Cody once again has found her groove. This new dramedy has the tart dialogue, fractured family dynamics and sly social observations that made Juno so beguiling.
And if Ricki occasionally feels like a rock-inflected Hollywood fairy tale, it’s hard to complain when such a stellar cast handles the material with sharp-edged aplomb.
Ricki’s nightly sessions at the Salt Well don’t pay the rent; by day, she struggles to maintain a sunny smile while selling overpriced gourmet foods as a cashier at Goodwill, an upscale, Whole Foods-ish supermarket where all employees are expected to maintain pod people-style grins. (Wish I could credit the actor who does so well in his tiny role as Ricki’s micro-managing boss, but — alas — the press notes aren’t that complete.)
Even with the two gigs, Ricki barely makes ends meet. Sadder still, her off-stage self-esteem is so low that she can’t even acknowledge the sincere romantic overtures coming her way from Greg, the band’s lead guitarist (rock legend Rick Springfield, looking very fine). She can’t quite make the “L” word pass between her lips.
Then, unexpected catastrophe: Ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) calls from Indianapolis, where he lives in a hilariously ostentatious mansion with second wife Maureen (Audra McDonald). Pete is worried because Julie has returned home, completely unhinged, after being dumped unexpectedly by her husband. Bewildered but also oddly flattered by the call — Streep fine-tunes this wealth of emotions with such subtle skill — Ricki responds to vestiges of maternal instinct and hops a plane.
Rarely, upon her arrival, has a fish been so far removed from water.
Kline’s performance is every bit as precise as Streep’s, with Pete at total odds over how to behave around his long-estranged ex. On the one hand, he’s clearly pleased to see her — albeit cautiously — but Kline also displays the nervous embarrassment of somebody ashamed of his own grandiose display of wealth (which speaks well of Pete). We’re reminded anew of Kline’s often overlooked acting chops, and the physical grace with which he complements every word and gesture.
Then there’s Julie (Mamie Gummer), whose debut appearance is accompanied by a level of jaw-dropping ferocity that will make this scene a cinema staple for generations to come. It’s another of the big screen’s classic entrances, with Gummer radiating hostility, betrayal and full-blown, overly medicated fury while somnambulantly stalking into the room, hair poking out in all directions, and wearing baggy, unflattering garments she obviously hasn’t changed for days.
Gummer’s sour-puss expression hurls undisguised contempt with the force of a rifle shot: I’m amazed Ricki survives the initial volley. We can’t help laughing at the wretched excess, and yet there’s no denying that this is a young woman in intense pain, silently screaming for help.
Knowing that Gummer is Streep’s real-life daughter makes the subsequent mother/daughter dynamic that much more piquant, as Ricki and Julie struggle to find common ground after decades of separation. Yes, we’ve been down this fractured relationship road many times before, but that’s the beauty of handing timeworn material to a talented cast: They make it feel fresh and sparkling all over again.
And wincingly funny, at times.
But only at times, because Ricki is ill-equipped to handle this sudden responsibility, and much too willing to slide into a self-defensive mode. Uncomfortable as her initial encounters with Julie are, things get even worse during Pete’s ill-advised family meal at a tony restaurant, where Ricki re-unites with Joshua (Sebastian Stan) and Daniel (Ben Platt). The former is grudgingly open-minded; the latter is as angrily bitter as his sister.
Pity Joshua’s poor fiancée, Emily (Hailey Gates), thrust into the middle of this combustible brew. Gates’ stunned, deer-in-the-headlights gaze couldn’t be more appropriate ... or funny, although we’re wincing while laughing. This is watch-from-between-your-fingers stuff, with breath held as we cringe and await the next verbal assault. Ouch, ouch and ouch.
Devastating as this scene is, though, it’s not the stuff of Streep’s recent performance in August: Osage County. That big-screen handling of Tracy Letts’ stage drama is nonstop, undiluted vitriol of the most deliberately nasty sort. In contrast, the emotional clashes in Ricki and the Flash emerge from pain and resentment, not deliberate cruelty. That distinction, along with Cody’s flair for droll hostility, makes the result far easier on our own sensibilities.
Besides which, Cody also enjoys poking fun at the uptight, generational wealth of the enclave represented by the residents of Pete’s gated community. While the underlying suggestion — that good ol’ rock ’n’ roll can solve the world’s ills — is rather simplistic, there’s no denying that something needs to extract the smugly condescending sticks from everybody’s fundaments.
The other, perhaps more satisfying moral is that even hopelessly flawed people deserve a shot at love and happiness. They also have something to contribute, and shouldn’t be summarily dismissed by upper-class parasites who believe themselves God’s gift to humanity.
For all this film’s various delights, Demme’s pacing is a bit off; he spends far too much time with Ricki’s Salt Well gigs, particularly during the melancholy transition between the story’s second and third acts. We get it: Streep can sing and rock her heart out ... but we don’t need to watch her do so, for such extended stretches.
On the other hand, a late-night moment of calm between Pete, Julie and Ricki is highlighted by the latter’s achingly poignant acoustic rendition of “Cold One,” an original ballad by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice. It’s a grand “bonding encounter,” and we love every lingering minute.
Cody based Ricki on her own mother-in-law, a grandmother of six, who still belts out tunes as the lead singer in a Jersey Shore rock band called Silk and Steel. And if people find it silly for a woman of her age to maintain such a side career, Cody reports, well, she simply doesn’t give a damn. More power to her.
Streep definitely captures that vibe, and her warts-and-all performance as Ricki powers us through this film, as do her exchanges with Kline, Gummer and even McDonald. (Ricki’s inevitable confrontation with Maureen is spot-on, both actresses delivering the blend of faux politeness and mutual scorn that we’d expect from such an altercation.)
Ricki and the Flash won’t win any points for originality, but there’s no denying the love and affection peeking through the fractured relationships in every scene. These characters want mutual redemption — desperately — and, truthfully, they deserve it. And when the package assembled by Demme and Cody builds such good will all the way to its triumphant finale, well, why resist falling under its spell?