RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
TriStar Pictures, 101 minutes, PG-13 (drugs and language)
We’ve finally found something Meryl Streep can’t do: wear heavy mascara. In Ricki and the Flash Streep plays an ageing woman who chucked domesticity and responsible motherhood in pursuit of rock n’ roll glory. We first meet her in an LA bar as Ricki Rendazzo, where she’s holding court as the lead vocalist of The Flash, a cover band the likes of which you’re unlikely to hear at a watering hole near you (Joe Vitale, Rick Rosas, Gabriel Ebert, and Rick Springfield). Can Streep sing rock and roll? Yep—with gusto, power, and husk. Can she play guitar? Yep—she learned how for the role. Does she look like a rocker? Well…. the cornrows are a bit much and her black mascara application would only look Goth on a raccoon, but she mostly pulls off the illusion. Springfield is, of course, a legitimate rocker and he takes all the heavy guitar leads. As Greg, he’s also Ricki’s on-again/off-again lover. He’s nuts about her, but Ricki has commitment issues galore.
Would that the rest of the film was as good as the music. Director Jonathan Demme knows how to film rock (Stop Making Sense, Storefront Hitchcock, three Neil Young films) and he’s a good documentarian (Cousin Bobby, Man from Plains), but his Hollywood career has been uneven and seems to have plateaued since Silence of the Lambs (1992) and Philadelphia (1993). Ricki and the Flash won’t get him to the next level. Once you’re done singing along with some of your favorite hits, what’s left is an overwrought rom-com that is more likely to induce eye rolls than huzzahs.
The film takes a turn for the worse when Ricki, whose real name is Linda, is summoned to Indianapolis to help her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) deal with their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter), who is suicidal after being dumped by her longtime partner. Julie is both a mental and physical wreck prone to angry outbursts as she parades around in PJs, puffy eyes, and rat’s nest hair. What can an absentee mom do to help? Can she reconcile with Julie and her two estranged sons who delight in cataloging her maternal inadequacies? What about Maureen (Audra McDonald) the step-mom who actually raised Linda’s three children? Did I mention that eldest son Daniel (Ben Platt) is engaged to snooty princess Oma (Charlotte Rae), neither of whom want Linda at their wedding? Or that youngest son Josh (Sebastian Stan) is gay? Shouldn’t there be a fourth child who is physically and/or mentally challenged? Can Linda/Ricki ever accept Greg’s love?
The better question to ask is: Do you see anything remotely new or non-clichéd in any of this? Actually, one of the film’s few non-musical highlights is its voyeuristic look inside Pete and Maureen’s Indianapolis McMansion—a cathedral-like monument to what happens when Big Money meets Bad Taste. Demme could have done a major take-down of American materialism and the shallowness of middle-class dreams were he not so busy trying (and failing) to make a bourgeois movie. All that passes for a message in this film is a hackneyed “Gee, some American families are really wacky, but your mom’s still your mom, no matter what.”
Here are your take-aways: Meryl Streep can rock. Rick Springfield can both rock and act. Kevin Kline must have needed a paycheck. Audra McDonald is a knockout. Jonathan Demme is lost.