Everyone in Hollywood, no matter how talented, eventually makes a bad movie. Even a team of all-stars can lack chemistry—or just have an off night. Meryl Streep, Jonathan Demme, and Diablo Cody are about as dependable a trio of actor, director, and writer as one could hope to assemble for a Hollywood flick, but unfortunately the result, Ricki and the Flash, is an unfunny, unsentimental, erratic, listless, run through the paces.
Ricki and the Flash is not quite as bad as its trailer made it look—but it is quite bad in spurts. It occasionally rises to the level of mediocrity, but at no point does it even threaten to become engaging, interesting, or unpredictable.
Ricki is the stage name of Linda, an aging divorcee who left her family to pursue her dream of playing music. Now she works as a cashier at Total Foods, while her ex-husband lives in a posh suburban home with ritzy bathtub in the master suite. As the film opens, Ricki and her band have been performing as the house band for seven years running at a dive in Tarzana, California.
I know this is in Tarzana and not Barstow or Reno because Ricki and the Flash is the sort of movie that gives you intertitles with establishing shots to tell you where the characters are located. That’s understandable. The airport in Indianapolis looks a lot like every other airport, and the dives in Tarzana look a lot like any other bar where ninety percent of the occupants probably have their SAG cards.
While on break at the grocery store, Ricki takes a call from her ex, Pete (Kevin Kline), who lets her know that their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, who is actually Streep's daughter) “needs her mom.” Julie’s husband has left her for another woman. Ricki gets herself out to Indiana and manages to get Julie out of her funk by suggesting she skip her therapy session one day and get her hair done using someone else’s credit card. There’s an awkward dinner with Ricki’s two estranged sons, one gay, the other of no real Hollywood interest since he is straight and not suicidal.
Back at home, mom, dad, and daughter smoke some marijuana and Ricki and Pete share a moment. But the next morning the step mom (Audra McDonald) is back and Ricki runs back to California to seek solace from her understanding boyfriend and guitar player, Greg (Rick Springfield, who is quite frankly the best thing in the movie).
More complications ensue—no, that’s not really accurate. More stuff happens. I guess if I have to pick worst among equals, I am going to lay the lion’s share of the blame for this film on Cody. The script seems so scared of falling into any one of a dozen clichés that it ends up refusing to develop any of the dozen or so possible themes. We get hints early on about a hereditary mental-illness backstory; when Julie is called “psychotic” there are pregnant, knowing looks exchanged. Nothing comes of it, though, and the more time mom and daughter spend together, the more it looks like Ricki isn’t so much bipolar as a jerk.
Once on stage and once at dinner Ricki is identified as a GOP voter/Obama hater, but her “I have to chase my dream even if it means smoking pot and leaving my kids to be raised by their African-American stepmom” life philosophy and her too-big tattoo of the American flag struck me came across more as writer’s descriptions than expressions of character. Ultimately, Ricki’s politics felt as inauthentic as those of a Facebook troll.
Then there is a Trainwreck parallel, with Ricki admitting to Greg that she is a “ruined” person and wondering how any decent man could want to be with her. The confrontation between Ricki and wife number two similarly fizzles. Plenty of these elements could be developed into a pretty decent melodrama. But when you factor in how much time the film gives to Ricki performing, you realize the film manages to be both overcrowded and underplotted.
It doesn’t help that the closest thing the film has to a thesis—Greg’s insistence that it is not a kid’s job to love her parents, only a parent’s job to love her kid—is actually a heap of gobbledygook.
Given what they had to work with, Streep and Demme almost pull it off. I’ve seen Streep do some bad movies before, but even in August: Osage County or The River Wild one never felt as though she was holding back, playing it safe. Here she just looks uncomfortable.
Some of that is the character, of course. Ricki undoubtedly would feel uncomfortable in some situations—such as at the dinner where all her family is saying how much they love their stepmom and hate her. But as played by Streep, Ricki has none of the flamboyance of a performer beyond the wardrobe.
Demme, who directed quite possibly one of the greatest concert films of all time (Stop Making Sense), is totally comfortable filming the band playing. But once Ricki gets off the stage, the camera doesn’t quite seem to know what to do. One minute we get discreet camera placements to create some emotional distance in the home; the next we are getting zooms to punctuate the surprise on Ricki’s ex-husband face and extreme close-ups of her daughter to punctuate her distress.
In one throw-away scene where Ricki is talking to Greg on the phone, the film cuts to Ricki talking four times and each time we get a different composition: Ricki on the far left of the screen, Ricki in close-up, Ricki in a medium shot with no deep focus . . . Cinematographer Declan Quinn is listed as having worked with Demme before, most notably on Rachel Getting Married. The cinematography is not incompetent—nothing in the movie is—I just never saw it as purposeful.
Here’s the real question: Is the movie good enough for Streep’s fans to enjoy it?
Possibly. Most of the people in the audience at my screening looked like parents in their 50s and 60s who either got a night out or whose teens were in the next room over watching Mission: Impossible. If Ricki and the Flash is not quite entertaining nor engaging, at least it is inoffensive and relatively quiet. Streep does covers of Tom Petty, U2, and Bruce Springsteen, and though I kept thinking that I would rather just be at home listening to the originals on CD, it’s always worth an extra half-star to see Rick Springfield play guitar.
Too bad Ricki didn’t cover “I've Done Everything for You.”
The official trigger warnings from the MPAA are for the ubiquitous “thematic material,” drug content, “sexuality” and “language.” In a PG-13 context the latter means an excremental word here or there but not the more crass and vulgar explicative. There is no nudity in the film. Ricki argues with her kids’ step-mom while wearing only a towel, and she shares some on-stage kisses with her boyfriend. They also transition from an argument to an implied sexual encounter. At the wedding Ricki is introduced to her son’s gay lover and there is some dinner-table debate over whether or not sexual orientation is a choice or an inheritance. One character (not Ricki) uses the word “gay” as a pejorative adjective, which I thought was supposed to be verboten these days. The drug content refers to a bag of marijuana that Ricki’s ex-husband has, ostensibly for migraines. The couple smokes some of it with their daughter, who also discussed what prescription drugs (presumably antidepressants) she is taking. There’s also plenty of drinking.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog