Ah, Diablo Cody.
Back when she first came on the scene, she seemed like one of the next great new and original voices to somehow make it big and cut through the artifice of Hollywood. She even got an Oscar for her debut script and nobody seemed to complain.
But then Cody kept on working and her output since never quite matched up to that standard. Her next two projects both came and went, and nobody seemed to care one way or the other. Then came her directorial debut with Paradise, a film that got buried under scathing reviews and a bankrupted studio. Things have gotten so bad that the past few years have seen a backlash against Juno, questioning whether the movie was even all that good to begin with.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Juno had a bad script. That’s not the issue, as I see it. No, the issue is that love it or hate it, Juno took on the issue of teenage pregnancy in a bold and sincere manner. That movie (and the “United States of Tara” TV show, Cody’s other well-received creation) had social relevance in a way that Young Adult and Jennifer’s Body did not.
If Cody is only at her best when she has some hot cultural topic to sink her teeth into, it would go a long way toward explaining why Ricki and the Flash feels so underwhelming.
This is the story of Ricki (Meryl Streep), alternately known by her birth name of Linda. She was married to a very wealthy businessman (Pete, played by Kevin Kline) and had three kids by him until she moved to L.A. to pursue her dreams of rock stardom. Her marriage fell apart, Pete remarried, and Ricki has been estranged from her kids ever since.
Cut to thirty years later. Ricki spends her nights playing with her band (the eponymous Flash) at the same old bar for the same old redneck audience for virtually no pay. They mostly play covers of ’70s rock songs, though they grudgingly cover a few more modern hits for the younger bar patrons. Anyway, Ricki has a crappy day job as a grocery cashier and she’s in the middle of declaring bakruptcy.
Then Pete calls to say that their daughter is in the middle of a very nasty divorce. More than that, Julie (played by none other than Streep’s actual daughter, Mamie Gummer) has collapsed into a hot mess after her husband’s infidelity, so depressed and unbalanced that she can’t even dress or wash herself. Desperate for options, and with his wife out of town on her own family business, Pete calls Ricki in for support.
As for Ricki’s other two kids, Josh (Sebastian Stan) has gotten engaged to his girlfriend (Emily, played by Hailey Gates), and he doesn’t want Ricki there at the wedding. Because she’s a loudmouth with no regard for social graces, and everyone is still upset that she walked out on her family. Last but not least is Adam (Nick Westrate), who openly loathes his absentee mother and accuses her of being insensitive toward his homosexuality.
Elsewhere, we have Ricki’s lead guitarist (Greg, played by bona fide rock star Rick Springfield), who very badly wants to start a relationship with Ricki even though she’d rather keep things at “it’s complicated”. Rounding out the supporting cast is Maureen (Audra McDonald), the woman who married Pete and raised his kids in Ricki’s stead.
To summarize, things are extremely awkward. More than that, every single character has a ginormous chip on their shoulder, eager to vent so many years of grievances in ways both passive-aggressive and outright hostile. Which means that through the vast majority of this picture, we’re watching these characters tear each other to pieces over feuds and arguments that we have no stake in, before we know the characters well enough that we can pick a side. It’s not entertaining, provocative, enlightening, or even presented in a way that makes for good drama. As presented, it’s just painful and awkward to sit through. It’s very difficult to get invested in a movie when the characters are so pernicious and their interactions are so mean-spirited.
(See also: Another recent Meryl Streep picture, August: Osage County.)
However, it’s not like the entire movie is about the characters taking potshots at each other. There are some very sweet moments between the characters here and there, usually when they just drop the baggage and let their guard down around each other. The musical numbers also help a great deal. Meryl Streep has a voice uniquely suited for an aging rock singer, and the fun she’s having onstage is simply infectious. That is, until her life problems bleed into her work and she has a meltdown onstage, which is embarrassing in so many ways.
That said, the entire cast puts in a lot of effort toward keeping the proceedings watchable. Streep is of course a standout, but Rick Springfield is the unsung hero of the picture. It’s no small accomplishment that he holds the screen against a grandmaster like Streep, and he can still rock an electric guitar with the best of them. I was also very fond of Audra McDonald, who does a phenomenal job with such a minor role.
Kevin Kline and Sebastian Stan do fine work with what they’re given, but it was Mamie Gummer and Nick Westrate who really got the shaft. Westrate plays a one-note character whose removal from the film would have changed absolutely nothing. As for Gummer, she’s stuck playing a character who spends at least half of her scenes determined to make everyone else as miserable as she is. She gamely tries to make the character sympathetic and interesting, but she sadly proved unequal to the task.
This brings me to a far greater problem with the movie: The development arcs make no sense. For instance: Julie is so depressed that she won’t get dressed or clean herself. But then Ricki comes home and Julia agrees to spend a day getting hairdos, mani-pedis, new clothes, and so on. How did Ricki get Julie to agree to all that? Nobody knows. The characters themselves ask that explicit question and nobody ever has a decent answer.
Julie and her brothers hate Ricki until they suddenly decide to tolerate her. Ricki hates herself, then she’s perfectly fine after a pep talk and a montage. Ricki gets into this huge argument with someone, then an olive branch comes to her in the mail like a deus ex machina. It feels like we get the beginnings and the endings of so many development arcs, and the middle section is glossed over. More than that, it feels like the character’s growth is dictated more by plot convenience than by the natural growth of the characters.
Basically put, I never felt like the movie sufficiently explained how Ricki wase able to make amends with her family and help her kids through these huge life transitions. And since that’s what this story was supposed to be about, that’s kind of a huge fucking problem.
But let’s get back to my opening statements: Does this movie have any kind of socially relevant statement? As you’ve probably guessed by now, not really. There is a bit about Julie’s mental illness, but the film never addresses that subject with any kind of depth. Adam gets in a few words about gay rights, but it’s pretty much entirely limited to one sentence about how there are some gay Americans who are denied the right to marry. Which (thankfully, and through no fault of the filmmakers) is already an outdated point. Otherwise, it’s so much stuff about old people finding a place in a young people’s world, the importance of family, some stuff about class inequality, and a whole bunch of other stuff that isn’t addressed in any way that’s new or interesting.
Ricki and the Flash has some moments that are sweet and funny and energetic, such that it’s hard for me to completely hate the film. It helps that there are some delightful performances to be found among the cast, and the musical numbers are very enjoyable. In particular, I expect that the film’s sole original song — “Cold One” — will probably get an Oscar nomination, though that isn’t saying much.
Otherwise, I don’t see anything in here worth awards attention. Though the movie has its good parts, overall, they aren’t worth the melodrama. It’s too hard to look past the broken character arcs, the uneven pacing, and the moments that are terribly unpleasant to sit through for how mean-spirited they are.
Anyone who comes to this for Meryl Streep and/or Rick Springfield will not be disappointed. Everyone else can wait for a rental or skip it entirely.
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