Movie Review: “Ricki and the Flash”

Ricki_and_the_Flash_posterMuch like director Jonathan Demme’s last feature, 2008’s astonishing “Rachel Getting Married,” “Ricki” is the story of a flawed woman, awkwardly re-connecting with her estranged family, on the occasion of an unusually music-intensive wedding. Of course, the tone is much different. And so is the music.

If you’ve seen the TV commercials or trailers for the film, you likely think of it as “that Meryl Streep rock star movie.” But it’s really not that at all. It’s much deeper, and affecting than you’d think.

“Ricki” combines the styles and worldviews of director Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody, in a marriage that’s much more successful than you probably imagined.

Streep plays Ricki, a middle-aged dive bar rock performer who, years earlier, abandoned her family to chase rock star dreams that never came true. Working as a Whole Foods cashier by day and playing classic rock covers to small, aging audiences at night alongside guitarist/boyfriend Rick Springfield, Ricki seeks a second chance with her estranged family once her daughter (Streep’s own daughter, Mamie Gummer) attempts suicide.

The middle, and best, section of the movie consists of Streep’s visit to the opulent Indianapolis home of her former husband (Kevin Kline, again playing a repressed Indiana man 15 years after “In & Out.” And this is mostly due to a standard performance from Gummer, who- with clothes and hair that it appears are actually unwashed- is much more convincing as a depressed person than such characters typically are. After a sojourn back to California, the film concludes with a musical wedding not exactly like the one in “Rachel Getting Married,” yet good for much the same reasons.

The movie works largely due to the writing- Cody seems to have gotten over her obsession with painful, “honest to blog” phrasings- and the creation of outstanding, multidimensional characters who are allowed to be both good and bad, and right and wrong. And the portrayal of these characters- led by Streep, Gummer and Kline- is first rate across the board.

Streep is playing a very different type of character for herself- for one thing, I couldn’t tell you the last time she played a Republican- but she knocks it out of the park anyway, and she’s even an all-right singers. Springfield, suddenly ubiquitous as an actor with this and True Detective, gets to act and play music, both reasonably well. Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate have some good moments as Streep and Kline’s sons, as does Audra McDonald as their stepmom. And the 89-year-old Charlotte Rae- Mrs. Garrett!- has a killer one-scene cameo as Kline’s mother.

The other thing I liked about “Ricki” is that it reverses stereotypes and movie conventional wisdom by making the Indiana characters rich, eccentric and crunchy- complete with wedding RSVPs in which the food options are “vegan” and “vegan gluten-fee”- and the Californian as an unsophisticated rube with an American flag tattoo and a record of voting for George W. Bush. Regional differences aren’t actually as cut-and-dried as the movies usually make them, so I found that refreshing.

So yes: The “Meryl Streep Rockstar Movie” is much, much better than it looks.

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