Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Ricki and the Flash: Review

Jonathan Demme has had a long and, at times, fascinating career. He began as an exploitation director in the Roger Corman stable. For a decade after that, he made wry, idiosyncratic films including Melvin and Howard, Swing Shift and Something Wild. He hit the big time in 1991 with the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, and two years later, Philadelphia. There was nothing of note for a while after that, but he returned in 2008 with the well-received Rachel Getting Married. In between, he’s also managed to direct more concert films (including the Talking Heads classic Stop Making Sense) than any other major Hollywood director.

Demme’s latest isn’t a concert film, but it is a musical of sorts. At its centre is Ricki (Meryl Streep), an ageing singer who works days at a department store and sings at night in a five-piece band called Ricki and the Flash. They’re a small-time outfit, playing classic rock and the occasional Gaga or Pink cover in bars. After one performance, Ricki gets a call from her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), who informs her that their daughter, Julie, is being divorced and is in bad shape. Would she come and visit?

It transpires that Ricki walked out on her husband, daughter and two sons to pursue her dream of being a rock star years ago, and has been virtually absent from their lives ever since. After some dithering, she does go and visit them, and the film tries to wring comedy from the sight of the 66-year-old Streep, in leather, with eye make-up and half her hair braided, negotiating with some wonder a nouveau riche home. Streep is very broad in the film—you might be reminded of her Julia Child in Julie & Julia, though this kind of showboating is more in the vein of screwball turns like Carol Lombard’s in Twentieth Century.

Ricki and the Flash might have worked if it were a little more tough-minded, if it really explored what it was like to be a woman who gave up her family for work but found little success, but Demme and screenplay writer Diablo Cody are clearly in love with Ricki, and keep finding ways to make her loveable and sympathetic. Of all the characters introduced—in addition to Pete, Ricki and their children, there’s Pete’s second wife and Ricki’s guitarist boyfriend—the only one I felt for was Julie, played by Streep’s own daughter, Mamie Gummer, whose black humour stays intact even as she unravels. Her scenes with Streep are the best thing in the film, which, for the most part, seems to be searching for a solid reason to exist (apart from ‘Hey, that Meryl Streep can really sing’). So you’ll have to be content with little pleasures, like seeing Kline with his co-star from Sophie’s Choice; cameos and look-ins for old Demme favourites like Sister Carol and The Feelies; Streep’s Chrissie Hynde voice as she sings "Cold One".

This uninspired review appeared in Mint. 

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