Ricki and the Flash (dir. Jonathan Demme)

Posted: August 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Ricki and the Flash” is a film mainly concerned with giving us clichéd character tropes, and then making their characteristics contain the opposite of what we expect the trope to have. I’m not sure if the message of this is against being judgmental, exactly, but it’s at least trying to be original. Our main character, Ricki (Meryl Streep) is an aging female rock singer who abandoned her family in the midwest to try and find fame and fortune in Los Angeles, only to cut a single album and be relegated to fronting a cover band, playing night after night in a small bar for a group of happy regulars. Quick, what do you expect the politics of this woman to be? Well, she’s an Obama-hating, military-loving, somewhat homophobic Conservative who voted for George W. Bush twice.  Her Midwestern family who are still peeved over her abandoning them? They live in a McMansion and are organic food-eating, limousine liberals with a mild hippy tendency. When one of Ricki’s sons (Sebastian Stan) sends out wedding invitations, they’re made of seeds and the invitation can be planted. As one character remarks, “That’s some Bourg-y (as in Bourgeois) shit right there.” That wedding? All of the servers at cocktail hour are lesbians, transsexuals, or gender fluid people. These same apparently liberal and accepting people look upon Ricki, in her black leather jacket, with disgust.  Ricki herself works at the film’s fictional take on Whole Foods, a store owned by an insanely Libertarian businessman that employs the poor to serve overpriced luxury groceries to largely upper class liberals and hipsters. Whole Foods is the almost the embodiment of contradictions that “Ricki and the Flash” wants to show off in movie form. A rich, right-wing business owner (okay) starts a store with supposedly more environmentally friendly food products (um…) who employs the poor and then underpays them and doesn’t want to give them health insurance (making sense again) but caters to liberals, hippies, hipsters, and green people (wait, what?) but charges so much that their products are often priced out to all but the most bourgeois liberals out there (*scratches head*)

I don’t mean to rag on Whole Foods, which does sell a number of products I enjoy occasionally (though their anti-GMO hysteria isn’t helping anyone), but to explain that “Ricki and the Flash” is trying to be the Whole Foods of movies. This attempt, by writer Diablo Cody (she of “Juno”, “Jennifer’s Body”, and the excellent “Young Adult”) keeps the film from becoming a movie you’ve seen a million times before.  Her main objective, however, is less about politics and class, though those are made explicitly clear, but about gender. At one point in the film, Ricki takes the mic between songs of her set and talks about how society says it’s okay for Mick Jagger, a man, to neglect his family and abandon his kids (not sure if this is accurate, the film mostly just points out the number of kids with different mothers, he may not have abandoned them…I love the Rolling Stones and have read Keith Richard’s autobiography, but I’m not too familiar with the particulars of Jagger’s life) but Ricki, who is a woman, is scorned for it.  I think Ricki, and perhaps Cody, are missing a key point here, though.  It’s easier for me, the Rolling Stone fan writing this review, to focus on the work of Jagger and not focus on his lack of good parenting skill because, well, I’m not one of Jagger’s kids.  I have no vested interest in whether Jagger went to his kids’ graduations or cooked them breakfast.  My interest in Jagger begins and ends with whether he plays a good rendition of “Paint it Black” in concert. Ricki seems to think the difference is that Jagger can get away with it because he’s a man and she cannot because she’s a woman, and we as society place a larger burden on motherhood than fatherhood.  That argument holds some weight, but in this case it’s not about that. It’s about how those in the family view it, versus those outside of it.  We see Ricki’s fans, mostly old but some young, dance it up and enjoy her music, but when she turns to talking about her personal life, they are confused and turned off.  The fans never care as long as the entertainment is good.  This is the same reason Woody Allen and Roman Polanski can get away with their indiscretions, as long as they keep churning out “Midnight in Paris” and “The Pianist”. Jagger’s kids might not be as forgiving of him as a Rolling Stones fan, and Ricki’s family is not as forgiving as her fans.  The character of Ricki, and possibly Cody, don’t seem to understand this differentiation.  If someone abandons their family to follow their own selfish dream, they’re not a “free spirit” who needs to run free.  They’re just a selfish asshole.

This doesn’t make me hate Ricki. She’s an interesting and entertaining character to spend 100 minutes with.  It just means the intended message of the film is a tad off.  Regardless, it’s an entertaining film that is often funny, and contains a decent number of extended concert sequences of classic rock cover tunes. The director, Jonathan Demme, who is most famous for directing “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), is no stranger to concert films, having directed the seminal Talking Heads concert doc “Stop Making Sense” (1984). When Ricki and her band play Tom Petty’s “American Girl” (in a much better cover than the horrible one that opened “Hot Pursuit” earlier this year) or Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”, they sound really good. I don’t know if Streep did her own vocals, or her own guitar work, but I know she was backed up by Rick Springfield, who plays her bandmate and boyfriend Greg, and Springfield has always been underappreciated as a musician because of his 80s hit “Jessie’s Girl” and his acting turn on a soap opera.  Recently, Springfield has played a skewed version of himself on “Californication”, wrote an entertaining if self-serving autobiography (he has not treated women very well in the course of his life), and apparently has written a novel (unread by me).  Here, he plays a character who works in part to ground Ricki, but to do so in a way that doesn’t stifle her the way a house in the Midwest with 3 kids might.

The plot involves Ricki’s daughter, played by Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer, being left by her husband and spiraling into depression. Not knowing what to do, Ricki’s ex-husband (Kevin Kline) calls her to fly out and maybe help their daughter past this hard experience.  Ricki’s return is not taken all that well depending on which family member she’s speaking with, especially her ex-husband’s new wife (Audra McDonald) or her gay son (Gabriel Ebert). The daughter, after some initial hostility and very Diablo Cody-esque snarkiness, eventually comes around to Ricki and actually seems to be improving. The film is then largely plot-less, and mostly focused on Ricki’s guilt, whether the family can forgive her and what obligations come with familial love.

The story is maybe a bit weirdly structured, with the first half traditionally plotted and the second half a bit more meandering and indie, only to end with the clichéd Big Wedding and all of the film’s conflicts being tied up in perhaps too neat of a package.  What makes the film work are the little character moments, like Ricki and her ex high on pot, Ricki getting a pep talk from Greg about parenting, and the confrontation with the daughter’s ex and his new woman.  At the end of a long summer movie season full of spies, superheroes, and special effects, it was refreshing to see a movie about PEOPLE doing things human beings actually do, speaking and acting in a realistic manner and not bogged down in exposition about dinosaurs or shrinking suits.  The true test of real movie-lover is when you get more excited for fall movies than summer ones, I’ve learned over time.

“Ricki and the Flash” doesn’t break any new ground, but it has some modest ambitions and accomplished some of them. It has a killer soundtrack, some good humor, and you’ll walk away from the film happy that you’ve seen it. B.

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