Film Review – Ricki and the Flash
Ricki and the Flash
Thank you, Jonathan Demme, for making Tom Petty’s “American Girl” a harbinger of doom for the woman who sings it in one of his movies. In Ricki and the Flash, that doom comes with the realization that as a woman, you can dream of a family or dream of a career, but trying to have both earns a lifetime of walking a gauntlet of judgement and criticism raging against your decisions. This story is how one woman keeps her gauntlet especially fresh and vigorous by being accountable while not apologetic.
Ricki (Meryl Streep) and her band, The Flash, play covers in a somewhat wilted local joint called The Salt Well in the San Fernando Valley. Their song list is comprised of hits that either make people sing along or get up and dance. In either case, Ricki wants to connect with her audience, however small they are on a given night. She trades barbs and political banter with her bandmates, especially her boyfriend/lead guitarist/lovestruck whipping boy, Greg (Rick Springfield). Night after night, he takes her light barbs with a sheepish smile, then lets her have it later. It’s supposed to be tension and drama, Ricki insists, and besides, “The crowd loves it.”
As a singer well-seasoned to stage life, Ricki has accumulated layers on her persona that are hard to remove, by choice or habit. Necklaces, rings, jackets, braids, makeup: she hardly removes them, even to sleep. They are hard-won and a part of her confidence. One can see how she would be hesitant to change.
The tension that keeps her solid on stage was also what separated her from her former life back in Indianapolis, where her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline) and three adult children still live. There she was Linda. Now she’s halfway across the country and working in a Whole Foods-type grocery store to pay bills so she can sing at night. Pete has long remarried, runs his own company, and has a large house in a gated community. When his and Ricki’s only daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer) gets dumped by her husband and sinks into a deep depression, Pete calls Ricki to come help, as his wife is out of town caring for her sick father.
We see pieces of four marriages in Ricki: one in which the first wife walked out, one in which the second wife had to pick up the pieces, one in which a young wife was left, and one about to begin. The men in relationships with these women respond to their assertions with varying levels of acquiescence; they are obviously used to gauging how much to interfere and when to retreat. Ricki’s behavior around Pete is tentative and edgy, as if they were circling each other trying to sniff out a familiar scent. They have known each other so long by phone that being in each other’s physical presence is disconcerting at first. Pete still harbors the last shards of a broken heart, keeping Ricki at arm’s length as they struggle to get back to that place where they can be a couple dealing with a child in pain. One of the most surprising characters is Pete’s second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald) who is scant seen but largely felt in her flawless home (she has a lot of those craft-store table art with sayings like “This is not a Burger King – I do things my way!”) and when we finally meet her, her poise and control are a fierce counterpoint to Ricki’s restlessness.
Julie, as opposed to the unflustered Pete, is as commanding in the family kitchen as her birth mother is on stage, emerging from her bedroom cave looking like a wild banshee in dirty pajamas, devoid of hygiene or concern for her current state. Her abandonment has left her raw, and making her mother a target gives her a proper outlet for grief and anger. As real-life mother and daughter, Meryl and Mamie play off each other with that natural grace of two people immersed in each other for three decades: in the scene where Julie enters the bedroom where Ricki is asleep, the young woman’s jaw and lips twitching in extreme restraint, I wasn’t sure if she had a knife behind her back or just wanted her mom to come down for breakfast. With kids, you never know.
Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) has written a script in which the characters themselves are well-drawn, but there isn’t enough time or space on the page to devote fully to each drama that is presented. The love lives of the three kids – Julie, Joshua (Sebastian Stan), and Adam (Nick Westrate) – are vehicles pushing the plot towards one calamity after another. The help for Julie begins well but then abruptly stops, Joshua’s marriage is introduced and then turns out to be the crunchiest hipster spectacle that a rock singer could endure, and Adam’s homosexuality is a matter of definition between mother and son. Any of these stories would have been a fantastic movie, but thrown together in an hour and forty minutes, all are left shortchanged.
So much is fabulously introduced but not explained that the pockets of rock scenes with Ricki and the band are the most complete in the film; they can take a song and put their all into it and the audience and each other. In truth, they are Ricki’s family on her own terms, their sets together more cohesive than any excruciatingly fractured dinner back in Indiana. She knows the decisions that she will have to live with every day – she admits that aloud. She also knows herself and her calling, and the joy she can inspire, and she wants her kids to know that, too.