Thursday, August 6, 2015
Review: "Ricki and the Flash"
I could've done with less singing.
That may be seem a strange criticism for a movie about a rock star. (Well, a rock musician, anyway.) But that was my main takeaway from "Ricki and the Flash": it spends way too much time with Meryl Streep and her eponymous band doing covers of (mostly) classic rock songs.
We all know how it goes with musical montages: the band will start playing, the scene will build energy as the song rises, the high point is the chorus, and then movie cuts away to a series of images that let us know they kept playing, but they're not going to show all of it. Director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody don't do this: we hear the whole song from beginning to end, just about every time.
The would be fine if the five, six minutes or whatever of song propelled the plot and advanced the characters. Or if it was just good to listen to. But the complete tunes seem more like an excuse to let Streep stroke her ego and play rock god. And, frankly, Ricki and the Flash sound like what they are: a third-string cover band. We know Streep can sing pop ballads and folk music from other movies, but here she's trying to do that husky-voiced rock voice, and it's just not her bag.
They're going for Bonnie Raitt, but it sounds like Meryl Streep after gargling Wild Turkey and thumb tacks.
Ricki bailed on her Indianapolis family a quarter-century ago or so to pursue her rock 'n' roll dreams in Los Angeles. She never made it but never left, spending days as a cashier at Total Foods while working the Salt Well bar as the house band for the aging clientele who want a little shake with their suds.
Then Ricki gets a call from her former husband, Pete (an ill-used Kevin Kline): their daughter Julie has just been dumped by her husband and is in an emotional spin. Pete's second wife, Maureen, is off dealing with her own family problems. Can Ricki (real name: Linda) come back and be a mother to her kids again?
Things play out much as you'd expect. The children -- they also have two sons -- are stupendously resentful of the parent who walked out on them so long ago. There's a lot of screaming and recrimination at first. But slowly, Ricki starts to ease her way back into their lives.
As usual, Streep is the best thing about whatever movie she's in. Her Ricki is frayed and strained, riddled with guilt but also justifiably proud of the fact that rolled the dice on her dreams. She sports a weird braided hairdo, omnipresent necklaces and makeup that looks like it was applied with a bricklayer's trowel. Everywhere she goes, people stop and stare.
Julie is played by Streep's real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer, and it's no small thing for a movie to feature people playing relatives who actually resemble each other. Their early scenes together crackle with energy. Julie has become despondent and suicidal, with a convincing rat's nest hairdo and lips curling with ready insults for her wayward mom.
Cody, who took Hollywood by storm with her script for "Juno" and then has been unable to follow up with anything approaching it, goes for the kitchen sink approach to story construction. Just Ricki coming home, healing the rift with her daughter and negotiating a dance around old resentments with her ex is enough. But then Cody throws in other entanglements: her son's pending marriage; her other son's coming out; her bandmate and bedmate (a soulful Rick Springfield) desiring something more concrete; the stepmom (Audra McDonald) returning just in time to lay down the law and ruin the party.
Characters and subplots dance in and out of the foreground, some staying too long and others exiting the stage too soon. The emotionally resonant reunion between mother and daughter gets sort of... misplaced. Julie literally disappears for most of the second half. Wasn't she the entire reason for Ricki's homecoming?
I admit I had been eagerly looking forward to this movie, and came away disappointed. It's not a bad flick by any stretch, and I'm of the opinion that anything with Streep is worth the price of admission. Ricki comes into clear focus, but everything around her stays fuzzy.