Sunday, August 9, 2015

Off-key: Ricki and the Flash

The following contains spoilers.

Meryl Steep’s terrible performance as Ricki Rendazzo, a ‘rock chick’ who left her family years ago to try for music stardom, only to end up fronting a minor bar band in Tarzana, California, is only one of the many drawbacks of Ricki and the Flash, a movie whose truthfulness is as elusive as Ricki’s dreams of success. As the ‘aging’ Rendazzo, Streep is all pouty lips and pained expressions, outrageous outfits and excessive makeup; what she isn’t is a flesh and blood character. But Diablo Cody’s screenplay doesn’t allow for anyone to create anything memorable on screen and Jonathan Demme’s lazy direction – he’s never been worse – only underlines the emptiness and hackneyed nature of the movie.

I can see why Streep essayed the role; on the surface it allows her a measure of blatant sexuality –which she doesn't pull off – and a swagger she doesn’t always get to display in her other work. But it’s also such a badly written part that Streep (while not falling back on an obvious accent or blatant tics as she has in so many of her movies) simply doesn’t do anything but look sad or occasionally defiant in the face of her estranged family’s disapproval of Ricki’s rock and roll lifestyle and selfish actions. She’s been called back to her Indianapolis hometown when her daughter Julie (Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) has collapsed emotionally in the face of her husband’s leaving her for a younger woman. Why Ricki’s ex-husband, straitlaced Pete (Kevin Kline), would ever utilize her services in the face of her barely having any contact with Julie, who also harbours deep resentment against her mother for abandoning her, is only one of the many aspects of Ricki and the Flash that makes not a whit of sense. (Ricki also isn’t much of a singer nor is the band all that good, so any praise Ricki and the Flash receives in the movie doesn’t ring true, either.) It’s probably not supposed to as the whole movie’s basically an obvious set-up for Ricki to heal all self-inflicted wounds and get back into the good embraces of her clan. Cody twists and turns the film’s unlikely plot points only to arrive at the movie’s uplifting ending, where logic and consistency gets jettisoned in the process.

Rick Springfield, Meryl Streep and Mamie Gummer

So much of Ricki and the Flash is illogical – from Ricki’s heartfelt paean to family values followed by her immediate refusal to come through for her soon to be married son by attending his wedding. We are actually meant to take her speech about family very seriously, so it’s not believable that she would then fall back so quickly into her old bad habits without even an attempt at trying to do or, at least, saying she will do the right thing. (She's also been written as an intolerant Republican who lost a brother in ‘Nam which I guess explains it. But she supports the troops so that’s okay. She's depicted, too, as being none too bright which seems like a liberal cheap shot at her right wing character.) The movie doesn’t even try to get at the relationships Ricki has with her two sons; we can only glean that her straight, soon to be wedded son Josh (Sebastian Stan) has less of a problem with her than the gay son Daniel (Ben Platt). who considers her homophobic. (She's barely in either of their lives – Josh did not invite her to his engagement party – so their differing reactions to her reappearance doesn't really parse.) It’s left to singer Audra McDonald as Maureen, Pete’s new wife and the kids’stepmother, to bring a whiff of genuineness into the movie. The scene where she assails Ricki by pointing out that she’s been the one who took care of her children as they grew up is pungent only because McDonald layers Maureen with just a touch of smugness as she sits on her high horse, undercutting her natural likeability. More importantly, Maureen brings a bit of authenticity to a movie that is almost always false in its situations and characterization. (The movie’s other singer/actor, rock star Rick Springfield as Ricki’s younger boyfriend Greg – though the two performers are virtually the same age – gamely tries, but he’s not a good enough actor to do anything with his dull part.)

For a movie loaded with potentially good actors – Gummer shines in her semi-regular appearances as a crafty lawyer in The Good WifeRicki and the Flash, McDonald aside, delivers mostly awful acting, from Streep's monotone Ricki to Gummer’s wan daughter to Kline’s stiff ex; Kline, in particular, seems barely able to do the line readings. And while Diablo Cody is hardly a great screenwriter, at least her debut screenplay for Juno (2007), boasted some sharp writing and under director Jason Reitman’s tutelage, good performances by leads Ellen Page and Michael Cera. But except for one scene where Ricki is lectured on how not to ‘alienate’ her customers at her retail supermarket side gig with her mannerisms – I work in retail so I can attest to its veracity – the movie never feels real or recognizable. The bar where Ricki and the Flash play is a strange amalgam of younger and older folk. They also respond favourably to the band’s covers whether it's Edgar Winter, Tom Petty, Pink or Lady Gaga. I don’t know how it is in California but in Toronto, where I live, bars’ demographics are almost always clearly delineated, as are the songs played there. Would it really be that different in the U.S.? And you can forget about any take on the Midwest that says anything deeper than that it’s more conservative than California and that Ricki stands out in their buttoned down crowd. Really? Who’d have thunk it?

Audra McDonald and Kevin Kline

If the movie has echoes of the somewhat similarly-themed Demme directed Rachel Getting Married (2008), it’s also an apt reminder of how superior that movie, scripted by Jenny Lumet, actually was. Demme has, for the most part, slipped precipitously form the halcyon days of his finest movies (Melvin and Howard, 1980, Stop Making Sense, 1984, Something Wild, 1986, Married to the Mob, 1988), but Ricki and the Flash displays not a scintilla of directorial ability. Any hack could have helmed it. No director  – talented or not – could not have done any worse than in the film’s penultimate and ridiculously far-fetched and overdone climax. Ricky having finally shown up at Josh’s wedding brings her band mates on stage with her and as they rip into a Springsteen tune – cause who doesn’t like Bruce? – it brings tears to everyone’s eyes as she finally wins back her children’s and ex-husband’s full approval. All her past sins get forgiven. (If it was that easy, the nation’s psychiatrists and psychotherapists would soon be unemployed!) Ricki and the Flash is actually just the latest in a very long line of Hollywood movies which exist merely to redeem their main anti-heroic characters – Demme’s preachy Philadelphia (1993) is a case in point. But even if Ricki may be redeemed, for foisting this atrocious movie on a paying public, Demme and Company are certainly beyond redemption.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute in the fall.

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