Monday, August 17, 2015

Ricki and the Flash

3/4

Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Material, Brief Drug Content, Sexuality and Language

Few actresses can almost single-handedly save a movie better than Meryl Streep.  Easily one of the hardest working and most talented actresses who ever lived, Streep's gifts are on display in "Ricki and the Flash," a dramedy that ventures into darker territory than one might think.  The movie doesn't know what to do with Ricki in the final third, but it's Streep's talent that carries us through.

Riki (Streep) is the lead singer and guitarist for "Ricki and the Flash," a cover band that plays nightly at a bar in the San Fernando Valley.  She was once married to Pete (Kline), but she left him when he chose a cushy life in suburbia rather than allowing her to follow her dreams as a musician (it took an affair on Pete's part to fully end their marriage).  Between them, they have three children: Julie (Gummer), Josh (Stan) and Adam (Westrate).  Ricki's decision to live out her dream has almost completely alienated her from her family.  But then Pete calls and says that Julie's husband dumped her.  Ricki then returns home, which causes plenty of friction.

Those who venture into this film based on the trailer are in for a surprise.  "Ricki and the Flash" was marketed as a traditional "feel-good" dramedy where the tightly-wound family is shaken up by a wallflower.  While Jonathan Demme does insert a few laughs into this film, it also ventures into some dark territory (not beginning with the fact that Pete only called Ricki because Julie tried to kill herself and is unable to manage the crisis without his new wife).  The majority of these laughs are of the dark variety; as funny as they are, they illustrate a dark and rather painful truth and come in an awkward situation (the dinner scene being a prime example).  The exception would be Demme's skewering of suburbia; he lets the vanilla outlook of today's picket fence lifestyle have it with both barrels blazing.  Perhaps ironically, this reminded me of Zwigoff's take of modern art in "Ghost World," which was similarly savaged.

Unfortunately, once Ricki's visit is complete, the film stalls.  Screenwriter Diablo Cody (who won an Oscar for writing the vastly overrated "Juno") doesn't know what to do with Ricki, and Demme tries vainly to turn it into a character study of Ricki.  It doesn't really work because the writing isn't there.  He drags things out to an acceptable running time with Ricki performing with her band (Streep is a wonderful singer, but everyone who has seen any of the musicals she's done knows that), but her development is quite contrived.  It's rather odd, really, since there are plenty of ways for this to happen (it's rather obligatory for the genre).

Streep is supported by a fine supporting cast, including Streep's eldest daughter Mamie, who in a very recursive way, plays Julie (in a good performance, no less).  Special mention has to go to Audra McDonald, who plays Pete's new wife, Maureen.  The TV actress best known for playing Dr. Naomi Bennett on "Private Practice" shines in the role, and more than holds her own in a heavy duty scene with Streep (in fact, it could be argued that she walks away with it).

Problems aside, I liked this movie.  It gets a mild recommendation from me, although those who don't go to the movies very often would probably do best to wait for it to stream online.

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