I’d been presuming all along that this or that aspect of Jonathan Demme‘s Ricki and the Flash (TriStar, 8.7) isn’t quite up to snuff. The release date spoke volumes. There’s nothing wrong with TriStar looking to attract an over-30 female audience, but I wrote last February that if Ricki was serious rock ‘n’ roll it would open in September or October. (It may not be fair but I’ll never fully divest myself of a notion that August is mainly for films with a soft or not-quite quality.) And then last week a critic friend told me it was “thin.”
So I attended last Monday night’s screening with low expectations, but I didn’t have that bad of a time. Yes, it’s “thin” but also an intelligent, reasonably flavorable, well-acted domestic family drama for a little more than an hour. Agreeably sharp Diablo Cody dialogue, a few interesting detours and details. Plus the unstoppable, exotically-coiffed Meryl Streep belting out eight or nine tunes with her L.A. bar band, which consists of Rick Springfield on lead guitar, a cool keyboard guy and a pair of old denim dogs on bass and drums. (Streep also manages to fake expertise at guitar-playing, which she learned for the film.) It doesn’t really add up or strum deep chords or slam any long balls, but it’s more or less okay. Not as pushy or nervy as Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, for sure, but I found myself settling for what it had.
The bottom line (and you have to roll with this) is that Ricki and the Flash isn’t a real-deal movie in that it bails on the basic drama — a mildly gloomy tale about a 60ish, barely-hanging-on rock band performer (Streep) facing her failures as an absentee parent when she returns to an Indiana homestead to help a daughter (Mamie Gummer) in crisis — around the 65 or 70-minute mark, or when Ricki returns to Los Angeles after being treated as a semi-pariah by her two sons (the younger of whom is gay and hugely resentful) and her husband’s second wife (Audra McDonald).
What happens during the final 30 or 35 minutes? One, Ricki becomes a film about healing and happiness and turning the other cheek (i.e., Streep deciding to be content with who she is and what she has, accepting Springfield as her full-time lover, returning to Indiana for her older son’s wedding) and two, it basically turns into a concert film. Between Stop Making Sense and his three Neil Young docs, Demme has shown real affection for shooting gifted musicians playing cool venues so the Ricki performance footage (comprising a good portion) fits in.
Shorter reaction: It definitely helps if you watch Ricki with a concern that it might suck, because it doesn’t and then you come out saying “hey, better than I expected!”
What’s feels wrong or ill-considered? Streep’s character is supposed to be broker than broke, but she wears ultra-pricey leather outfits and has half of her hair done in costly-to-maintain dreads or corn-row braids or whatever. Springfield’s boyfriend, presumably just as lean in the wallet, has clearly had eye and facial work done that would set him back a good $20 or $25K in Los Angeles (or a third of that if he had the work done in Prague). “Ricki and the Flash” play much better than a typical Tarzana bar band — they actually sound good enough to open for Bruce Springsteen or Bonnie Raitt.
Plus the gated family mansion owned by Ricki’s ex (Kevin Kline) is supposed to be somewhere near Indianapolis, but the neighborhood looks like Westchester or Fairfield County. (Ricki was shot in Rye, Yonkers and Piermont.) Why not just cop to this? There’s nothing about Kline, McDonald and the kids living in (or near) an affluent New York suburb that argues with the basic story.
And we’re shown too many frowns and disapproving glares from well-to-do diners during a restaurant scene in which Streep, Kline and her children sort out Streep’s maternal derelictions, and again when several stuffed-shirt types listen to Ricki and the band kick out the jams during a wedding finale. I know what Fairfield County types are like, and if something distasteful is happening in a socially mixed situation they won’t openly express disdain — they’ll just smile and roll their eyes and pretend to be cool and detached. Demme over-demonstrates his loathing for this crowd.