WRITTEN REVIEW – Ricki and the Flash (2015)
Ricki and the Flash
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Written by: Diablo Cody
Starring: Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer, Kevin Kline & Rick Springfield
Release Date: September 4th 2015
In terms of new-wave film directors and film writers from the 2000s such as Michael Arndt, Lee Hall and Christopher Nolan, one of the stand-outs was screenwriter Diablo Cody who wrote the 2007 critically acclaimed hit ‘Juno‘. After winning the Academy Award for “Best Original Screenplay”, Cody has had trouble replicating that success and a reason for that is not just the low-quality of her recent output such as ‘Paradise‘ (BAD) and ‘Jennifer’s Body‘ (WORSE) but because she hasn’t written many screenplays since her breakout hit.
Thanks to the counter-casting of Meryl Streep in ‘Ricki and the Flash‘, her latest movie directed by one-time great director Jonathan Demme (‘The Silence of the Lambs‘, ‘Philadelphia‘ & ‘Rachel Getting Married‘) has had quite a bit of attention heaped on it. It’s hardly a mind-blowing blockbuster but when 3-time Academy Award winning Meryl Streep and Academy Award winning Jonathan Demme take a film like this on board, people take notice. But does ‘Ricki and the Flash‘ have the titular flash to capture an audience or is Ricki a failed rock star for a good reason?
Years ago, Linda (Streep) left her husband and three children in order to move to the other side of the country and start a rock band. Under the alias Ricky, she performs with a band known as “The Flash” in a small bar in a small town at night and working on a cash register at a health-food store during the day. After years away from her family, Linda gets a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kline) to let her know that her daughter Julie (Gummer) has been cheated on by her husband and is absolutely devastated. Linda comes back home to be there for her daughter, but she has a lot to answer for and a lot of her immediate family don’t even want her there.
This may seem like an awkward place to start this review, but I think an accurate way to describe ‘Ricki and the Flash‘ is to call it a “white-people problem” movie. With the exception of Linda and her band members, the rest of the supporting characters are absurdly rich, well off and most of the movie is spent inside a mansion so mind-bendingly lavish and large with a fridge RAMMED with high quality food that I can’t help but feel that the movie is trying to make a statement along the lines of; “See, even rich people can be sad too!”. Whether or not it’s deliberate, it does seem to undermine a lot of the drama where 90% of the characters seem to have absolutely anything they could possibly want.
Anyway, ‘Ricki and the Flash‘ is playing a familiar tune about family abandonment and parental responsibility, but it does quite a few unique things with the formula to prevent it from feeling cliché, specifically with the casting of Meryl Streep as Linda/Ricki. In my review of ‘Pixels‘ I touched on the concept of “counter-casting” and how that only works when you cast an actor who audience members actually like to play a role completely unlike them. Thankfully, Streep is a media darling and can easily draw in a dedicated audience by herself. And she is on reliably great form here, embodying a unique, sexually charged character who is unrepentant in her actions of abandoning her family for her own dreams. That lack of repentance is where ‘Ricki and the Flash‘ bucks a few tropes and that’s mainly because Linda is such a forceful personality and Meryl Streep is able to bring the necessary weight and humanity to the character to prevent her from becoming grating, which could have very easily happened with Linda.
Another great piece of casting is Mamie Gummer as the daughter; Julie. Gummer is Meryl Streep’s real-life daughter and the two do share a strong resemblance, so that works already, but it’s clear that the apple didn’t fall too far from the talent-tree as Gummer is also a very strong actor and the two do share a lot of chemistry together on screen. One detail I liked in particular was how Julie had many of her father’s mannerisms because she’s spent a lot more time with him than Linda.
This detail isn’t commented upon or explicitly stated for the audience, but it’s a great piece of detail whether Gummer was directed to act like that, or she naturally did it for the sake of her character. She is under-served by a script that fails to give her any sort of arc, however. She opens the movie as a suicidal wreck but once the plot-elements of a wedding, a love interest for Linda and others come along, her development falls by the wayside and the movie never picks it back up.
Same goes for Pete, played by Kevin Kline. It feels like his character-arc or potential for growth and change stops halfway through, especially when his current partner shows up played by Audra McDonald who only gets one noteworthy scene, but damn does she make the most of that one scene. This is a problem that seems to permeate the entire film as many scenes don’t end, or transition to the next scene. They just kinda…stop. The scene in the restaurant where Linda sees her two sons for the first time in years just…stops as things were getting interesting. The scene where Julie sees her ex-husband in a bar with his new partner just….stops. I understand that ‘Ricki and the Flash‘ is a “slice of life” drama which is why many of the characters have un-fulfilled on-screen arcs which will surely be continued after the events of the movie, but that doesn’t mean that the structure has to take that same approach.
The end result is a movie that feels incredibly choppy and poorly paced, especially towards the end en route to the heavily foreshadowed conclusion at Linda’s son’s wedding which gives the movie a phenomenally drawn-out third act. The run-time is only 101 minutes, but it feels at least 140 because the third act seems to take the movie well beyond its logical conclusion, especially since there aren’t any sort of resolutions (if ‘Ricki and the Flash‘ IS aiming to be a “slice of life” drama). You easily could have lost around 20 minutes from ‘Ricki and the Flash‘, especially in regards to the extended musical sequences where “Ricki and the Flash” perform entire songs. Not to discredit the talent of the band members and Meryl Streep as the lead singer and co-lead guitarist (Streep actually learned to play guitar for the role because she’s Meryl Fucking Streep, Son), but there’s no reason these songs couldn’t have been played over montage footage or conversation sequences as opposed to stopping the movie in its tracks. Efficiency should be the priority here.
The song sequences are strong and well filmed as well as being full of rocking 1970s and 1980s tunes to pop onto the official ‘Ricki and the Flash‘ Soundtrack. Rick Springfield does well in the thankless role of Linda’s love-interest as most of his interactions with Ricki involve him being very upset at the fact that she seems to keep leading him on.
However, the reason ‘Ricki and the Flash‘ doesn’t fall apart is because it’s so sharply written and the cast have such terrific chemistry together on-screen. Diablo Cody does write great dialogue and she’s got an eye for detail as well as a lot of life experience that works its way into the finer details of the screenplay (including the MOST hipster wedding I think I’ve ever seen in a mainstream movie). But due to the pacing of the story, it feels like a lot of that was left on the cutting room floor so the film can move forward as opposed to staying in the heat of the moment and not ending a scene in mid-argument or mid-conversation.
Director Jonathan Demme seems to have two approaches in terms of directing this movie. Either get right up into the actor’s faces or pull the camera way back. There’s very little middle-ground, though pulling the camera back seems to work better for this movie otherwise you’d miss a lot of the detail in the performances. It feels like ‘Ricki and the Flash‘ would work very well as a stage show and Demme, despite being an Academy Award winning director, offers very little cinematically to the movie.
The song sequences are well filmed, even if the continuity editor must have cried himself to sleep every night because “The Flash” band-members just kept hopping around the stage. Also, this may be a total nit-pick, but there was a terrible edited-zoom near the end of the movie.
Basically, when you’re filming you can zoom using the camera and get a clear image. Or you can film it and digitally zoom it in post-production. But if you do the latter, you pixilate the image. It happened right in the middle of one of the most important moments in the movie and it was a shot that didn’t even need to exist. I’m not going to score the movie any lower because of it, but it really did bug me.
But in the end, ‘Ricki and the Flash‘ ultimately…kinda works? It feels very restrained and unable go to much further than it really should. It really could have been more dramatic, it really could have been funnier, it really could have been sexier or more outrageous, but it feels too restrained and ultimately ends up just being crowd-pleasing fluff. There’s nothing wrong with crowd-pleasing fluff, but it feels like with Meryl Streep, Jonathan Demme and Diablo Cody on board as well as a great starting point that subverts genre tropes that it really should have aimed a lot higher than it did. But it’s still fun and will definitely serve an older audience well, especially mothers and older daughters who can relate to the material.
I give ‘Ricki and the Flash‘ 3 stars out of 5.
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Posted In: 2015 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews
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Posted: 15th Sep 15