Directed by Jonathan Demme / Written by Diablo Cody / Starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer
Ricki: Why would you love a ruined person?
Think you’ve seen Meryl Streep do it all? Think again. In RICKI AND THE FLASH, she’s Ricki Rendazzo, the lead singer/guitarist for a cover band in a tiny bar catering mostly to middle aged locals wanting to relive the music of their youth. The film opens with the band rocking out a Tom Petty song (‘American Girl”) with Ricki, centre stage wearing her best rocker duds, her fingers adorned with so many rings and a hairstyle reminiscent of a Bananarama video, growling her way through the song with a voice that is a cross between Sass Jordan and Bonnie Raitt. Yes, we are out of the Sondheim’s woods and into a smoke and beer scented bar where the oldie hits just keep on coming, though every now and again, the band will cover a Lady Gaga or a Pink song to get the sparse college crowd up on the dance floor.
Between sets, Ricki gets a phone call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) telling her that Julie (Mamie Gummer), the daughter she left behind 20 years ago, has attempted suicide due to her husband falling in love with another woman and wanting a divorce. The penniless Ricki (who supplements her bar money with a job as a cashier in the supermarket) flies back to the Midwest to try to make amends with the family she abandoned decades ago to pursue her musical dreams.
If only the movie had stayed in the bar…
Penned by Oscar winner Diablo Cody (JUNO, YOUNG ADULT) RICKI AND THE FLASH is a series of clichéd events where the fish out of water mother tries to reconnect with her children. When we first meet Julie, she is seismic with grief and anger, spewing hatred at her mother (“You didn’t make it to my wedding, but you’re here for my divorce?”). The scene is so volcanic that I am convinced that Gummer’s real-life Mamma Meryl must have taken her aside at some point to tell her she would have to turn down the histrionics if she ever intends to garner Oscar’s attention. Once Ricki and Julie bond during an afternoon with ice cream and massages, it’s time for Ricki to reacquaint herself with her two sons at an upscale restaurant. Stop me if you heard the one about the one son with his uptight fiancée who are too embarrassed by the mother to invite her to their upcoming wedding and the other son who resents his mother for not accepting his homosexuality. The only non-musical energetic scene in this movie is between Ricki and Pete’s second wife Maureen (played with great aplomb by Broadway’s megastar Audra McDonald). Their passive aggressive banter is cruelly funny and insightful. It’s the only scene in RICKI AND THE FLASH where the usually brilliant screenwriter Cody hits the nail on the head.
Two things save this movie from utter disaster. Director Jonathan Demme’s love of music perfumes the screen with richness and love, as it did with his Talking Heads documentary STOP MAKING SENSE or how music played a crucial character in RACHEL GETTING MARRIED. And then there’s Meryl. Not only does she override the handicap of a lazy script with panache, her vocal renditions of “Drift Away” and, especially Bruce Springsteen’s “My Love Will Not Let You Down” had me in goosebumps. There won’t be any Oscar recognition for her performance in RICKI AND THE FLASH but wouldn’t it be great if she was nominated for a Grammy instead?