Ricki and the Flash (2015)

08/16/2015  By  Ashley Herald     Comments Off

Diablo Cody has made a name for herself writing screenplays about people who happen to have either ruined their lives or seem to be in the process of doing so. Some have criticized this as cliché or attention-seeking, but in truth the most interesting people are often the messiest ones. There’s something to be said for talking about the people that society avoids talking about, like pregnant teenagers or irresponsible mothers. Humanizing the people our societal bias tells us to judge can be tricky, but it never stops Cody from trying. Happily, she succeeds quite admirably here; if only the structure of the film kept up with the humanity of the characters in it.

Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) moved to LA to pursue her dream of being a rock star a long time ago, leaving behind her life as Linda, a mom in the midwest. One night, while performing in a club with her erstwhile paramour Greg (Rick Springfield), she receives a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline); her daughter Julie (Streep’s daughter, Mamie Gummer) is getting a divorce and not handling it well. Ricki takes time off from her day job as a grocery cashier and flies across the country to be there for the children that resent her.

Meryl singin'

A rocker who moved to LA and also hates Obama a lot, that’s our Ricki

The greatest strength of this film is, bar none, how organic it is. These are absolutely one-hundred percent believable people, full of flaws and mistakes and good intentions. People are layered, you know? It’s rare to meet someone you can immediately qualify as All Good or All Bad, and Ricki and the Flash really gets that. Ricki, a.k.a. Linda, is completely estranged from her family, and in truth has done little to be a part of their lives, but this is in part because she feels she doesn’t belong there. It doesn’t stop her from loving them and wanting to be involved. When the dialogue is awkwardly phrased or delivered, it is because the situation is awkward or the character feels embarrassed. Feelings are expressed in gestures even as people sort of dance around saying what they really mean, much as we do in real life. This is a completely believable — one might even go so far as to say “accurate” — portrayal of a semi-dysfunctional family full of people trying their best, fully acknowledging that a person’s best won’t always be very good.

These characters are so engaging that it’s almost impossible not to sympathize with them immediately, which makes it all the more jarring when the structure of the film and the camerawork pulls you out. Conflicts find resolution, but often in oblique, indirect ways, that actually pull the viewer out of empathetic engagement. Secondary character arcs are neglected to focus on Ricki, who, despite being Meryl Streep, is not the most interesting part of the film.The camera placement is occasionally so claustrophobic as to cause aggravation unrelated to the tone of the scene. When nobody is ever explicit about their feelings, the story needs to be told through other cues, like what we see, which means the camera’s insistence on obscuring body language is just frustrating. These actors are talented; pull the damn camera back so we can see them work.

Still singin'

Sing it, Meryl

These moments of being pulled out of the film could probably be glossed over, except that the movie’s pacing gives you plenty of time to dwell on them. The concert scenes are the worst for this, actually, as the choice to play multiple full songs in a row when the music is not particularly the focus of the film gets boring very quickly. Streep’s throaty singing is pleasing enough, but when the driving force of the film is character relationships developing and exploding and mending, extended time away from it grinds the film to an almost agonizing halt.

These flaws aren’t enough to outweigh the emotional depth and impressively well-developed characters, but they do hang on the movie in a way that prevents it from being great. The cast, and Gummer in particular, put in great performances that bring these already well-written characters to life, affording them the kind of nuance that can be rare in these sorts of films, which makes the somewhat cheesy ending gratifying rather than groan-worthy. For a gentle reminder that even complicated relationships can bring a happiness of their own, go ahead and see Ricki and the Flash; just don’t expect that reminder to come without a few exasperating flaws.

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About Ashley Herald

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Ashley Herald is an avid lover of science and science fiction, sociology, cinema, and other things that start with an "s" sound. When not writing for Front Row Central they pursue graduate degrees. You can follow them on twitter: @ash_words