Before we get back into the Lucas-Minus-Star-Wars series I wanted to play a little catch up. Here’s one of my favorite movies of last year, and I bet most of you haven’t considered seeing it.
In RICKI AND THE FLASH Meryl Streep (BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY) plays the broke-ass leader of a California bar band who’s on an unlikely mission to Indianapolis to cheer up her daughter Julie (Streep’s real daughter Mamie Gummer), because her husband left her. One thing is, Ricki abandoned the family years ago to follow her rock and/or roll dream, and they never forgave her for it and rarely talk to her. But Julie’s gotten so bad that her dad Pete (Kevin Kline) gets desperate enough to break that emergency glass. It’s a fish-out-of-water story where the fish has no money and has to stay in your guest room and you don’t want her there but you try to be polite and also you have to pay for her cab.
Ricki is a rare and precious thing, a lead role for an actress – an older actress, even – that gets to be complex and flawed and also funny (not to mention sing and play guitar!). She’s a strong personality and also a mess and possibly racist and hates Obama and also it turns out she knows how to be a good mother and friend. I mean, now she does, but where the hell was she before? Will this cause healing, or only increase resentment? Streep, not surprisingly, goes to town with the role and seems to be having a great time.
Julie is also a really funny character, battering polite society with her aggressive disillusionment and recent abandonment of hygiene. I love the confusion and disappointment of the hairstylists Ricki brings her to as they encourage her to brush her hair. Gummer, by the way, has a good decade-plus of movie and TV roles under her belt, mostly without the aid of her mother. But the uncanny resemblance really helps here. It reminds you that as much as Julie hates to admit it she has alot of her mother in her.
I was surprised to turn this on and see that holy shit, Parliament-Funkadelic keyboard master Bernie Worrell is a member of The Flash. I guess it makes sense because it’s directed by Jonathan Demme, who did STOP MAKING SENSE, and Worrell was in the Talking Heads touring band at that time. He actually gets a couple lines and his name in the opening credits, but I think he was mostly there to play (and not really show off, because this bar band wouldn’t have a virtuoso genius in it).
Rick Springfield is also in the band, but he’s there for the acting. His character Greg is a sweet burnout on-again-off-again for Ricki to take for granted. Honestly I’ve never paid enough attention to Springfield over the years that I even recognized him, but I found him convincing as a regular joe rocker and cool old people boyfriend as opposed to a real rock star.
Also I had no idea until looking him up just now that he was Australian.
I know Demme has many fans, but honestly I watched this because it was written by Diablo Cody. I’ve enjoyed most of her stuff, but YOUNG ADULT spoke to me so much I had to get a life time subscription. I think RICKI AND THE FLASH shares alot of the same appeal as YOUNG ADULT, but in a friendlier package. I prefer the meaner version, but I loved this too. When, say, a young person at a wedding offers Ricki a ridiculous “craft cocktail” in a jar Cody may or may not have written the character to be a hipster buffoon, but the scene comes across as a friendly “aren’t young people cute” kind of thing. It’s a nice non-judgmental movie.
It’s less interested in subverting your expectations, more in giving you nice moments of bonding, forgiveness, and understanding. That’s good too. I may have gotten a little that’ll-do-pig at the end. A little the-end-of-ROCKY in the eyes. But it’s not the same kind of ending. I like it when a movie makes you feel the triumph of a relatively small achievement.
Ricki is both better and worse than YOUNG ADULT’s petty, alcoholic, totally relatable protagonist Mavis. Ricki enjoys a drink or a smoke, but she’s not out of control. She has a similar attitude of being cooler than the suburban drones back home, but is not nearly as vicious or open about it. She’s a much nicer person and more of a peacemaker. On the other hand she has done way more damage than Mavis because she left her kids. Mavis goes defiantly unredeemed; Ricki improves her relationships. But Ricki can never undo what she’s screwed up. Mavis still has time.
At one point I was afraid this would turn into one of those “otherwise reasonable person makes unbelievably poor decision” movies when Pete gets nostalgic, has fun smoking a joint with Ricki and then leans in awfully close. But it’s gonna be okay. He’s very good as an uptight, somewhat clueless but still very likable ex-husband dork.
When the new wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) comes home she seems too good to be true, and yet she is: beautiful, kind, a great cook, friendly and welcoming to the intruding weirdo, and then polite and fair when she tells her she should leave now. It would be so easy to make her the character you hate for her aggressive perfection, or to make her kind of a snob toward Ricki. But no, Ricki has to come to terms with the fact that this woman is lovely and correct and the one who actually raised her kids.
I relate to Ricki in many ways: feeling uncomfortable in suburbs and big houses, not always knowing how to be a family person, being used to not having much money until I’m around people who have it, trying to stay proud of my life when being around normal grownups makes me ashamed of it. Most of all I relate to her being cool and good at what she does in a small little world. She’s passionate about what she does and it’s all that makes her happy and it doesn’t matter too much that in the outside world nobody gives a shit about Ricki and the Flash, or understands what she does, or will even call her by that name, since it’s not what’s on her driver’s license.
Her big shot at success is now mostly forgotten, a little embarrassing, one obscure solo LP locked up in Pete’s storage bin. But the dream lives on in one sad bar in Tarzana, where the bartender loves her and the old cowboys and young dive-bar tourists generously sit through her uncomfortable between-song banter as long as she balances the classic rock with the new hits by the young people she doesn’t really get. It would’ve been nice if she became the new Joan Jett or something, but she’s still gonna keep going now that it’s way too late for that. What else would she do?
And I have to say, the depiction of a young woman getting excited for a particular song, standing up and having to convince the guys with her to come up front and dance is dead-on. And the type of sort-of-sarcastic-but-having-fun white people dancing that happens at a wedding. The movie occasionally gets a little broad (like in the scenes of Ricki’s day job at off-brand Whole Foods), but more often it’s these types of observational moments of things I recognize from life but don’t think I’ve seen in a movie before.
Speaking of dancing, there’s a nice part where a scene begins lingering on a close-up of a woman dancing joyously, and before it pulls out enough to show that she’s the one person standing at the front of the stage at the bar, you may notice that it’s Diablo Cody herself. Having fun in a Jonathan Demme movie. That’s a good cameo. She’s kinda like Ricki, she’s gonna have fun doing her thing no matter what some asshole is gonna think about it.
(I’m sure she’s a better parent though.)
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.