Movie Review: “Ricki and the Flash”

Starring
Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer, Sebastian Stan, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, Ben Platt
Director
Jonathan Demme

It’s been seven long years since director Jonathan Demme’s last narrative feature film, “Rachel Getting Married.” Over the course of his career, Demme has captured a variety of human emotions and experiences, whether in his thrillers, dramas or rock concert documentaries, and he returns to the big screen once again with the deeply human, honest and heartfelt film, “Ricki and the Flash,” written by fellow Oscar winner Diablo Cody (“Juno”).

Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) isn’t exactly living her dream. The once-promising musician, now in her 60s, works in a grocery store while also performing at a half-empty bar at night. She hasn’t let failure stop her, though. Ricki still goes on stage giving everything she’s got, even when the rocker has to sing Lady Gaga for the young crowds. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of her relationship with her three kids, who are all grown up and off living their lives without her. But when her daughter, Julie (real-life daughter Mamie Gummer), hits rock bottom after her husband leaves her for another woman, Ricki – who still sports leather pants and no shortage of jewelry – gets a second chance at being a mother by confronting her past mistakes in an attempt to finally be a part of her childrens’ lives.

This all sounds rather familiar, and it is. “Ricki and the Flash” mostly goes where one expects, but it does so with grace. None of the tropes are clichés; they all feel organic to the story Cody is telling, and the story she’s telling is incredibly sweet. Her scripts have always been sincere, whether you’re talking about her overlooked horror-comedy, “Jennifer’s Body,” or her best work to date, “Young Adult,” which has an incredible amount of empathy for a damaged character. Lately, Cody’s stories have gotten even sweeter, and while that tone didn’t quite work in her directorial debut, “Paradise,” it’s tremendously successful here.

These are characters you love, flaws and all. Rick Springfield plays Greg, a member of the Flash who’s madly in love with Ricki. Much like his kind-of-sort-of girlfriend, he’s made some serious mistakes in his life. Springfield plays this one scene beautifully (well, all of his scenes, really, because he’s fantastic) where Greg opens up about the poor decisions he’s made as a father, and it’s both moving and sad. The movie isn’t about forgetting your mistakes or trying to make up for them – they’ve already been made. It’s an honest portrayal of trying to move forward and accepting the past, and because there’s nothing phony about its message or Ricki’s arc, it’s easy to cheer for the big, potentially corny scenes.

As for Streep, this is her most emotional and grounded work since “Adaptation.” When Ricki is the one creating drama for herself, Streep and Cody always manage to find the sadness in it all. Even at the charming rocker’s lowest points, the actress doesn’t lose the audience’s empathy, and sometimes, it’s quite funny to watch as well. Streep is a gifted comedic performer, and that talent shines brightest when Ricki compares herself to Mick Jagger on stage in the aforementioned bar. It’s a sad joke, but one that makes a really good point – namely, that if Ricki were a man, she probably wouldn’t be judged as harshly.

Every time Ricki performs a rad cover song (“Drift Away” being the best of the bunch), it lines up with where she’s at in her journey. Cody’s script is really well structured, resulting in some fine drama, but she’s also lucky that it ended up in such good hands. After all, Demme is an actor’s director. He’s assembled one hell of a cast – Kevin Kline, as expected, is excellent as Ricki’s ex-husband – and he captures them as a completely believable family. Credit goes to the actors too, of course, but Demme rarely ever falters when it comes to casting. He knows how to build an atmosphere and energy with his movies, and the one he built for “Ricki and the Flash” is extremely pleasant and truthful. This is a rare kind of crowd-pleaser: an honest one.

  

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