Monday, August 24, 2015

Ricki and the Flash (**1/2)

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Diablo Cody's preoccupation with outcasted women trying to fit into Middle American normalcy has given us Jason Reitman's two best films, Juno and Young Adult. Her collaborations with Reitman have been the best thing for the two of them. Neither has really amounted to much without the other. You'd think that Cody getting a chance to work with one of the best living American film directors, Jonathan Demme, would count as an upgrade. Not to mention casting the lead in the film with Meryl Streep, an actress whose reputation is so absolutely adored that she can probably die without a single meaningful performance going forward and still be considered the greatest of all time. This seems like such a great mix, and indeed, I do think the level of the talent does help rise what could have been a pretty unspectacular premise toward watchability. None of the players here are swinging for the fences. Ricki and the Flash is a pretty low-stakes film with a lot of emotional fireworks and crowd-pleasing one-liners. Demme views Cody's sardonic humor through a more sentimental lens and strips away all of Reitman's inherent cynicism. And yet, the film works for me. All of its frills and overeagerness paid off as I watched a rather half-baked film evolve into a pretty effective - albeit hackneyed - story of redemption.

Streep plays Ricki Randazzo, the frontwoman for a house band called The Flash at a local dive bar in Southern California. Her guitarist, Greg (Rick Springfield), is a botoxed beauty with a sweet ax who wants to be in a serious relationship with Ricki, but is often spurned. Ricki's life is thrown for a loop when she gets a call from her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), about their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep's actual daughter). Julie's short-lived marriage has fallen apart and she has descended into a dangerous depression. Pete thinks a visit from her mother, her actual mother, would do her some good. Ricki is unsure, she has been estranged from her family for quite some time. After her three children were born, Ricki escaped from the family in Indianapolis to pursue her dreams of being a rock star. All the dream became was a single obscure album that led to nowhere, and by the time that failed she was left spurned by the family hurt by her betrayal. Despite the growing animosity she knows she is sure to face, Ricki heads over to Indianapolis to see her family for the first time in decades. Here she isn't even Ricki, she's Linda, and she's met with the wave of distaste and resentment that she expected. Not only is Julie ungrateful for her mother's presence, but her two son, Josh (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate) show their unease as well. Julie's quick to spill the beans about Josh's secret engagement to Emily (Hailey Gates), an elopement hoped to keep Linda out of the wedding.

But eventually the family softens, as they tend to do in these kinds of films. Ricki even manages to win over Pete's second wife Maureen (stage legend Audra McDonald), albeit after some stormy first impressions. This is classic parental redemption material. There's no room in Ricki and the Flash for Cody's previous explorations into sexuality (Juno) or alcoholism (Young Adult), and the few glimpses we may get are quickly subdued by Demme who seems more interested in having fun with musical performances. In true Demme fashion, all of the Flash's performances are performed live, and Streep is given another chance to show off her formerly unused - now, probably a little overused - vocal capabilities. The rock covers are probably the film's finest moments, and in the film's final wedding, we see just how close this movie is to Demme's previous film Rachel Getting Married. Rachel was a bruising drama with very little in the way of the kind of character redemption that Ricki is interested in. It was also more suited to Demme's rock documentary style. I'm not sure Demme can make those kinds of films anymore, or at least, he doesn't seem very interested. But when Ricki and the Flash works, its high notes so wonderfully sweet, brought by a veteran cast that understands how to deliver even mediocre writing. This film probably doesn't live up to the pedigree of its participants, but their own fun has its moments of infectiousness.

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