For a fair bit of the running time of Ricki and the Flash, I wasn’t sure I cared too much for the film. Then, I began to enjoy it more and more, with the climax actually almost bringing a tear to my eye. That does make for a somewhat uneven movie, but one that succeeds more often than it fails. One of its bigger successes is the lead performance of Meryl Streep, someone fans of the site know I don’t always enjoy as much as most do. Here though, she’s fantastic, essaying a character unlike any she’s had before. Director Jonathan Demme is a music lover, as we all know from his documentaries, so he challenges Streep to essentially put on a musical performance as well as a comedic and dramatic one, all the while spouting off dialogue from scribe Diablo Cody. It’s not an easy part, and while it takes her a few scenes to settle in (the same goes for the movie on the whole), once it all comes together in the second half, it really works. Though flawed at times and a cut below where it probably needed to be in order to really contend for Academy Award citations (Streep notwithstanding, as we all know she’s a special case), Ricki and the Flash does manage to become a pretty solid crowd pleaser.
At one point in her life Ricki Randazzo (Streep) was just aspiring musician Linda Brummel, but when we meet her, she’s been spending decades as just Ricki, now a house band in a small bar in Tarzana, California. Her pursuit of rock and roll fame cost her a marriage and estranged her from her children, but she seems at home on the stage, covering classic rock songs (and the occasional recent pop hit) with her band The Flash. She’s in a relationship with lead guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield), though his attempts at declaring actual love keep seeming to be rebuffed. Rick is living a life in stasis, until she’s called back to her former home in Indiana by ex husband Pete Brummel (Kevin Kline). Their oldest child Julie (Mamie Gummer) is in a deep depression after her new husband left her. Feeling maternal instincts, Ricki races there, only to initially be met by anger and indifference by her daughter, as well as her visiting sons Josh (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate). Old wounds die hard, though Pete is legitimately happy to see her, which leads to some temporary bonding. Rick is able to make progress in helping Julie, though between learning that Josh is engaged and doesn’t want her at the wedding, as well as the return home of Pete’s second wife Maureen (Audra McDonald), it’s clear her family has moved on. Back in California, Ricki has some second thoughts though, wondering how much she’s lost by chasing her dream. I won’t say exactly where it goes from there, but I will say the ending of the film is very much earned.
I’m most fond of Meryl Streep when she appears to be having fun, as opposed to chasing another Academy Award, and here she’s having a blast. There’s a look of joy on her face when she’s singing and playing the guitar that both shows the actress at play as well as gives you an idea why this character would give so much for a dream. Our introduction to Ricki is intentionally awkward, but it doesn’t show Streep at her best. It’s during the scenes in Indiana as well as the climax that the performance truly comes alive. This won’t win her another Oscar, but Streep could easily get another nomination if voters are charmed by her brash character here. As good as she is, I actually was more impressed by the supporting players, since they have much less screen time to work with, but leave an impression regardless. Kevin Kline deserves another turn in Best Supporting Actor for his patriarch Pete, a man who just wants the people he loves to be happy. He’s wealthy, but yearns more for the richness of family than material gain. A sequence involving him cutting loose is tremendous. Perhaps even more impressive is Rick Springfield, who gives a tender performance as Ricki’s supportive boyfriend. He gets the most important monologue of the film, one that sets the third act truly in motion, and he nails it. Also doing strong work is Mamie Gummer, who clearly relishes getting to upstage her real life mother in certain scenes. Their chemistry together is great. The aforementioned supporting players like Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, and Nick Westrate are solid, while other effective cast members include Hailee Gates, Ben Platt, and Charlotte Rae. This is clearly a Streep star vehicle though, not that it should be a surprise to you.
Director Jonathan Demme is basically trying to mesh his music docs with the sensibility he brought to Rachel Getting Married, and while it’s not quite as effective as that last family drama/dramedy, it still works with Ricki and the Flash. Demme’s pacing is a bit slack, but he is wise to let Streep perform full songs instead of just clips though, so bravo on that front. The script by Diablo Cody is only sporadically laced with her specific witticisms, leading to a slightly more anonymous sound to the characters than expected, but she does manage to tell a potentially cliche ridden story with a minimum of cliches. They both struggle bringing us into the world, which leads to an opening scene meant to illuminate Ricki as a not fully likable person, but her between songs chatter to the audience about how much she doesn’t like government and the President just comes off as stiff. Everyone recovers, but it’s a rough way to start things off. I don’t think either will get another Oscar nod for their work here, but if one were to benefit from Streep love, it could be Cody, who’s certainly due a second nom. The other place voters might wind up looking is Best Original Song, where the tune Cold One gets multiple plays, and at important junctures as well. Jenny Lewis helped write that one, so perhaps look for her on stage next year…
Overall, Ricki and the Flash isn’t going to blow you away with any one aspect, but it does wind up doing right by its characters in the end. This is a small movie about an unusual family, told with a minimum of quirk but a ton of love for everyone involved. It’s easy to fight it at the start, but if you’re like me, you’ll be worn down and moved by the end. Without saying exactly what happens, when Streep covers a Bruce Springsteen song at an important event and you see the ultimate effect it has, a tear might come to your eye. It did for me. Again, Ricki and the Flash is far from perfect, but it’s more than solid enough to recommend to you all.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!