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Ricki and the Flash

August 7, 2015
Ricki and the Flash

We already know from A Prairie Home Companion that Meryl Streep has a pretty good singing voice. I’d have expected that if she got together with Rick Springfield, Rick Rosas, Bernie Worrell, and Joe Vitale to form a band they’d end up somewhere better than playing covers as the house band at a dive bar in Tarzana. But Ricki and the Flash is a movie, and so we suspend our disbelief.

The band really isn’t bad. Director Jonathan Demme has a long history of shooting concert films, going back ti Stop Making Sense in 1984, and he brings those skills to bear in making every one of The Flash’s songs pop. And it’s good that they’re fun to listen to, because there are a lot of them. They almost threaten to overwhelm the rest of the movie: a Diablo Cody-penned dysfunctional-family dramedy.

Being a musician was always Ricki Randazzo’s dream, even back when she was Linda Brummel (Streep) from Indiana. Whether she left her family or was pushed out kind of depends on who you ask, but now she’s playing covers with the band rather than her own music — she once recorded a single album that nobody bought — and working as a cashier at “Total Foods”. And in case it’s not stunningly clear what that’s meant to stand in for, there’s a joke where one customer’s $450 bill does actually amount to her “total paycheck” for the week.

Ricki gets dragged back into her messy family with a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline): her daughter, Julie (Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer), was dumped by her husband and she’s in a bad way. And with Pete’s second wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) off in Seattle taking care of her father with ALS — “that’s short for Alzheimer’s”, Ricki insists — Ricki scrapes together enough for a flight.

Probably the most original idea here is that rocking, Los Angeles-based Ricki is the Tea Party conservative, while her wealthy ex-husband in a gated community near Indianapolis has the family packed with progressive liberals, or at least caricatures of them. Ricki’s son Adam (Nick Westrate) is gay and Josh (Sebastian Stan) is getting married and having a reception where the meal choice is between “vegan” and “vegan/gluten-free”. The script practically rolls it’s eyes, “check out these weirdos.” But while Cody wants to present a well rounded, sympathetic picture of a conservative main character — a rarity these days in a Hollywood movie that doesn’t involve either Jesus or killing a lot of brown people — she can’t resist stereotyping Ricki and her friends as fun hicks either.

It’s probably not out of any sort of malice on her part. There are the seeds of some really interesting character dynamics going on here, but they get starved by a superficial, almost cynical treatment and smothered under the weight of everything else that’s going on. What did happen back when Ricki moved out? that’s all in the past by the time we get to the story, and the characters spend all their energy on excuses not to unpack it. The same goes for what led up to Julie’s divorce.

What we do get has some funny moments, but they never really build up to anything more than a single inflection point in Ricki’s life, and one we never really feel invested in. They make for some okay entertainment, though, and so do all the songs we watch The Flash playing. In fact, it’s not quite clear whether there are so many that they crowded out the meat of the story, or if Demme expanded on the music because there wasn’t much story to begin with. Both are okay, but neither are ever completely satisfying.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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