It’s been widely accepted for a long time now — Meryl Streep can do no wrong… at least where her acting skills are concerned (as it’s quite clear there have been a few hiccups along the road to her legitimate crowning as the Queen of Oscar). Whether she is righteously dramatic, vindictively evil, delightfully funny or surprisingly capable of belting out a tune, Streep always remains fantastically believable as a fully-realized, three-dimensional woman. There are very few actors who can pull off what she’s been able to do in her illustrious career, but unfortunately, even her grandiose talent can’t save every movie. There are limits to her powers, and they come in the form of writers and directors, neither of which Streep has any control over (aside from choosing what scripts she accepts). It’s clear that her presence raises the profile of a film like Ricki and the Flash, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a film will translate to a perfect end result.
Written by Diablo Cody, who has herself fallen from grace ever since her breakout screenplay, Juno, took Oscar by storm, Ricki and the Flash starts out promising, but about half-way through, the meat is stripped from the film’s backbone, leaving it a bit tasteless and empty. Based on what we’re given in the trailer, Ricki (Streep) is a woman living in a past she can’t let go of who returns home when her estranged daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer), breaks up with her husband. From that, we’re given the idea that the story would be a strong, mother-daughter relationship drama, in which both Ricki and Julie would grow from the bond they share with one another… which it does, for the first half of the film. But then the focus completely shifts away from this relationship to focus on Ricki’s relationship with her band mate and sometime boyfriend, Greg (Rick Springfield), so by the climactic wedding of Ricki’s youngest son (Sebastian Stan), I felt a bit cheated because the weight of Julie’s character arc has been depleted by her absence.
Ricki is played beautifully by Streep as a flawed, yet loving woman who buries her fears under a persona she doesn’t necessarily have control over, and one of the best decisions director Jonathon Demme made was casting Gummer (Streep’s real-life daughter) as Julie to counter-balance Streep’s wild child. The chemistry the two actresses share on screen is evident in every minute interaction, which makes their dynamic as mother and daughter that much more powerful. So when the film decides to excise this growing, fertile bond, it ends up forcing a manufactured reconciliation with a family who all but hates her simply because Ricki finally finds a way to open her soul to a man she’s been fighting hard to keep at a distance, even as she pulls him closer. The script ends up feeling like two different movies that don’t quite fit with one another.
One reason for this is adding a subplot highlighting the hatred between Ricki, her ex-husband, Pete, (Kevin Kline) and his second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald). Kline and Streep are a remarkably subtle pair who work very well together as a couple who clearly still love each other, but know that the love comes more from a kinetic hatred toward what they represent than anything representing love. They don’t try to hide their pain with one another, but they don’t let it get the best of each other either. On the other hand, the vitriol between Maureen and Ricki is clearly evident, no matter how much they try to hide it. Ricki feels betrayed by her because Maureen has all but taken over her family, and Maureen despises Ricki for being a toxic influence on the kids, even though its clear she’s not as bad as Maureen would like to believe. Maureen doesn’t hold back, and in a brilliantly blunt fashion, tells Ricki exactly how she feels, and though this sentiment is the catalyst that forces Ricki to “grow up”, it’s also what rips the heart of the film out of its chest by pushing Ricki away from the main mother/daughter relationship thread.
If only they would have taken the extra step to write more original music for the film, it might have had a more genuine touch. At one point in the film, Julie and Pete are shocked to learn that Ricki wrote a song she sang to them, because it reached deep down within her soul to capture her thoughts and feelings. I won’t spoil too much here, but at a crucial moment in the film, Ricki chooses to sing a cover of a song when an original song, written from the heart based on the experiences in the film, would have had so much more impact and solidified the meaning of the film a lot more than the chosen song (even though it does work for this particular moment in the film). It just highlights a film full of flaws that rises above the material due to a strong cast, led by Streep, that play the emotional strings well enough.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include Straight Outta Compton and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.