Ricki and the Flash Is Kind of a Bizarre Movie, but Not Enough to Hide Its Flaws
2 1/2 out of 5 stars.
Watching the trailers for Ricki and the Flash was sort of a baffling experience for me. I really, really like Meryl Streep in just about everything. Her funny stuff, her dramas, even her recent decision to become a musical actress (still not sure about Mamma Mia, but her pure joy makes it watchable). But even from the trailers, I had the sense that her character of Ricki seemed kind of annoying.
Though maybe it was just the odd, shrill trailers?
After all, Beyond the Light was one of my favorite movies last year, and I thought those trailers did a terrible job selling what was good about that movie. And this is a Jonathan Demme movie, who loves to take domestic life and make audiences cringe in a good way (Rachel Getting Married, Melvin and Howard, even Something Wild). And this is a film written by Diablo Cody, who loves to write for complicated and often unlikable female characters (Young Adult). Plus, it isn’t like Streep and Kevin Kline mindlessly take pay-check gigs. So I went in with hope … but limited expectations.
And I have to say, this movie is a lot better than I expect from the trailer. The shrill wackiness they were selling it on is certainly less than expected, and there is a darkness they have generally hidden. It’s also far more serious than the trailers would suggest but also just kind of bizarre. It’s a pretty clear example of a film with a moderate script which is certainly elevated by the director and skills of the actors involved. But this also doesn’t feel like a Diablo Cody movie and especially not a Demme movie.
Demme’s domestic movies tend to feel loose and scrappy. This one feels oddly polished, more like his dramas (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Manchurian Candidate), and almost sanitized considering the dark subject matter about a mother who essentially abandoned her family and her children’s response to her. So, while his skills are very apparent with this movie and elevate the script beyond the most cliché Hollywood family drama, this isn’t what I expect from a Demme family, and I couldn’t help but feel the shiny, feel-good polish he applies hurts the film.
The polish seems to be used to talk down to audiences that studios fear would be turned off by Demme’s domestic comedies. And that sense of being talked down to by this film is a prevalent and continuous feeling I had while watching it. It wants an older, mature audience, but certainly doesn’t see the audience that way. And Demme has dealt with these issues before with a more skillful touch. The regret and loneness from failed marriage was more palatable in just two episodes of TV’s Enlightened and Something Wild. Likewise, the women in Rachel Getting Married and their complicated family relationship feel more realistic than in this movie, which is odd considering Streep is playing opposite her real-life daughter.
The truly baffling reaction I had was the overwhelming feeling that Streep might be the problem I had with this movie and why it felt so off-putting. Streep is absolutely trying to carry this film as hard as she can and clearly enjoying going big. But she is also acting in a way that’s too obvious and deliberate to ultimately have the intimacy the movie ultimately needs. She clearly isn’t naturally inclined to being big or brassy or non-maternal, so she reacts by going a little too big. I kept thinking how much I wished another actress had been considered for the role, like Francis McDormand, Susan Sarandon, or Anjelica Huston, or even real singers who can act like Cher or Bette Midler. Streep is no doubt a fantastic actress, but she feels miscast, and I never felt like I was watching a person—just an actress wrestle with a character.
Part of the reason domestic comedies work is the sense of intimacy they should have; almost like you’re intruding on a real family’s intimate conversations. And while Streep is supposed to be “the outsider,” the way she tries to sell that is by acting over her costars rather than with them. In Rachel Getting Married, Anne Hathaway felt very much like the same kind of outsider in her family, and her intimate moments were all the harder to watch because of it. Not to mention the fact that we’ve seen Streep play a variation on the mother walking away from her family in Kramer vs. Kramer, and in her very minimal screen time, she sold that character far better than as the lead in Ricki. It could be that the actors were directed differently (Demme’s only other time directing Streep is from Manchurian Candidate, perhaps the only other film I think Streep isn’t very good in), but it does make the main character we’re supposed to want to follow and invest in frustrating to watch, especially when there seem to be far more real and interesting characters in her periphery.
All her costars are bit more rooted in a sense of reality, whether playing her estranged family or current lover. Rick Springfield is actually really good as Ricki’s current “boyfriend” (she refuses to call him that) and brings shading to a character and history that wasn’t necessarily on the page. So is Kevin Kline, who we don’t get enough of in movies today, as he really sells a sense of loss and pain from his broken marriage, which comes as a surprise. I just wish there were more of both on the screen. Characters are actually spread pretty thin, and I question even giving Ricki three children she abandoned, when the film is clearly so much more invested in her relationship with her daughter (Streep’s daughter Mamie Gummer). Obviously their reconciliation scenes work really well, but with the exception of Gummer’s first scene, the tension isn’t as strong as the movie needs it to be if it wants any tension at all. Besides playing the more forgiving son, Sebastian Stan has probably the least to do in the family.
It is odd that Diablo Cody’s script seems to be the overwhelming problem the movie has to try to overcome. For one, the movie feels carved up, because there are a number of resolutions that seem to have happened off screen that desperately needed to happen on screen simply to show character growth. Ricki also sounds like Cody’s two other female protagonists from Young Adult and Juno, but it seems she hasn’t really taken age and experience into account, so the dialogue between Gummer and Streep isn’t distinct enough.
But the biggest problem with the script is a sense that it lacks real convictions. The movie dances around issues about motherhood, abandonment, and selfishness but never really lets characters hash those out to be resolved or at least addressed to have the big, happy conclusion that the characters get. There’s a moment in the film when Cody seems to have something big to say about inherent sexism in families, questioning why guys like Mick Jaggar are cool if they have children with a lot of different women and aren’t around, but women like her who leave their family aren’t. But it just doesn’t work, because I doubt the kids of these rock stars actually feel like the fathers who abandoned them are cool.
That also seems to be an idea thrown out to excuse an unlikable character’s history rather than allow for an honest conversation about whether a woman has more pressure to be dependable or if she feels guilt for leaving her kids (or guilt for not having that guilt). By the way, we really don’t know any of that backstory regarding her life with her family or her decision to leave. No one is going to say she should have stayed in an unhappy marriage, but to omit this information completely is just an odd way to sidestep tension the movie should embrace.
This is a movie that should embrace tension and relish the opportunity to have characters fight and hate and work things out as best they can. Let’s dig into why Ricki turned away from her Midwestern life and didn’t stay involved with her daughter and son’s lives. What was it like for Kevin Kline’s character to be left and raise three kids? And how does Audra McDonald (who probably has the best scene in the movie) fit into this family as the step-mother? They dance around all of this, using the running time for multiple extended musical numbers, when really the music isn’t good enough or revealing enough about the characters to excuse this much time spent with Streep performing cover songs.
The basic story of a parent leaving and coming back is actually a familiar one, and one that’s been told better multiple times, although rarely about mothers. The father-child relationship in Royal Tenenbaums (for that matter, the smaller storylines in Kramer vs. Kramer and The Hours) is arguably a more honest examination. Those films looked at the affect that kind of parent has on their children’s adulthood, and the guilt associated with being that kind of parent better than Ricki and the Flash. This film isn’t funny enough to excuse this its own mediocrity, and Ricki just isn’t a vivid enough character to carry everything else.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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