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Review: Ricki and the Flash (2015)

Ricki and the Flash (2015)

Directed by: Jonathan Demme

Premise: An aging rocker (Meryl Streep) reunites with her estranged family amid the daughter’s divorce.

What Works: Director Jonathan Demme is best known for his dramatic films of the 1990s, namely The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, but since then he has had an eclectic career and made a variety of movies. Among them have been music documentaries such as Neil Young Journeys and the dark comedy Rachel Getting Married. Ricki and the Flash channels some of Demme’s other films, namely his interest in rock music, but it is also a more mainstream piece of entertainment than anything he has produced in a long time. This is a fun movie and it operates on the reliably appealing formula of a family coming together and the way music, and especially classic rock, can transcend generations. The script to Ricki and the Flash is credited to Diablo Cody who had previously written Juno and Young Adult. This film has the wit that is characteristic of Cody’s work but it turns down some of her quirks. The characters of this film are a bit more real and more damaged by life than those of her earlier works. Something Cody has done effectively throughout her films is create characters who make socially unacceptable life choices and maintain their empathy. The title character of Ricki and the Flash is a woman who left her family to follow dreams of rock stardom. Admirably, the film does not find her at the height of success; instead she is washed up and spends her days working as a cashier at a grocery store and her nights playing cover songs in a dive bar. Ricki is a terrific character and she is brought to life by Meryl Streep who pulls off both the drama and the musical sequences equally well; her singing in Ricki and the Flash is far better than it was in 2008’s Mamma Mia! Ricki’s reunion with her family is awkward and the filmmakers find ways of staging the action so as to bring out that discomfort very effectively; the restaurant dinner scene is especially well acted and directed. The interaction between this absentee mother and her children, especially her troubled daughter played by Mamie Gummer, has a lot of authenticity.

What Doesn’t: It does not seem as though the filmmakers of Ricki and the Flash ever figured out exactly what their movie is about. The story begins with an estranged mother attempting to comfort her daughter in the wake of a devastating breakup. That comes to a conclusion about halfway through the movie at which point the story turns to the relationship between Ricki and her bandmate and lover, played by Rick Springfield. In the finale the movie jerks back to her estranged family as Ricki gives motherhood one last shot by attending her son’s wedding. There is a lot of great stuff in Rick and the Flash, especially the relationship between this mother and the children who have grown up without her, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. This is supposed to be a story about redemption and reconciliation but nothing substantive ever happens. The characters don’t do things that visualize or dramatize the change in their relationship and so Ricki and her children come together without earning it. The ending of this movie is especially a problem. Without giving it away (although the trailer already did), the story concludes at the wedding with a gesture by Ricki that is supposed to be heartwarming but it’s actually really narcissistic. The musical performances of Ricki and the Flash are well done but there is too much of a good thing. Numerous songs are played from beginning to end and a lot of the performance scenes don’t have a point. The musical numbers ought to serve a purpose by advancing plot and character, but the story frequently goes inert during these scenes. 

Bottom Line: Ricki and the Flash is a fine movie. It suffers from a lack of focus and relies upon formula but the acting performances and the musical sequences mostly make up for that. What the movie lacks in depth it mostly makes up for in likability.

Episode: #557 (August 30, 2015)