‘Ricki and the Flash’ (2015) Movie Review

Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep in Ricki and the Flash

Photo: TriStar Pictures

Do you ever watch a movie filled with talented people in front of and behind the camera and try to will it to be better? By simply focusing your thought energy to the screen, you could somehow manipulate what is happening in the film. The pieces of a good movie are there, but they need to be realigned in a slightly different way to rise up from mediocrity. Such was my experience watching Ricki and the Flash. Instead of getting what could have been a thorough drama about an absentee mother being forced back into her children’s lives, we get an easy, rather routine crowdpleaser, complete with all problems being healed by dancing to Bruce Springsteen.

And it’s not like director Jonathan Demme and writer Diablo Cody do not know how to make things tough for their characters. Just look at Cody’s criminally underrated script for Young Adult or most of Demme’s filmography. Light and easy would not be how I imagined these two would team up. Not to mention they have Meryl Streep as their lead, an actor we all know is capable of tackling difficult material. Hell, the whole cast is. So, it’s rather baffling they decided to play it safe here.

Ricki (Streep) is the front woman of the house band (the titular “The Flash”) at a Los Angeles bar. The regulars at the bar, most of whom are of the older persuasion, love dancing along to the classic rock covers they play, and she and her lead guitarist (Rick Springfield) have one of those “we don’t want to put a label on it” relationships. One day, she gets a call from her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) about their daughter (Streep’s actual daughter Mamie Gummer) whose husband just walked out on her for another woman. If you are wondering how this plot plays itself out, your first guess is most likely the correct one.

Every scene you think would be there truly is there. Check off the scene where the reckless mom cancels her daughter’s therapy so they can go get their hair done. Check off the scene where the uptight dad loosens up by smoking pot. Check off the scene where they encounter the ex-husband in a public place. Check off the awkward, slightly hostile family meal at a restaurant. Check off the scene where the absentee mom and the there-for-the-kids stepmom (Audra McDonald) debate who really is the kids’ mom. It is all there. No new twists on any of it.

Now, just because the material they have is not new or thoroughly explored does not mean what they did set out for is not well executed. This is due almost entirely to Ricki and the Flash‘s terrific ensemble cast. Streep, Kline, Gummer, and everyone involved is giving it their best effort. Kline, in particular, meshes really well with Diablo Cody’s cadence (Note: Can someone please write this man a great part? Please!). Audra McDonald is one of the few people out there who can be on a level playing field with Streep, and though their scene together is pulled out of a screenwriting handbook, they perform it expertly. And as a theater fan, it is nice to see Bernard Telsey as a casting director, who can pull some of New York theater’s best for the smallest of parts, like Tony winner Gabriel Ebert as the ex-husband (with about eight lines) and Tony nominee Keala Settle as basically an extra.

Demme does not do anything particularly interesting with the camera or staging, taking a rather workman, director-for-hire approach. The man who filmed some of the most exciting concert footage with the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense is not to be found here. The clearest example of this is in how these films start. Both begin on a stage with closeups of feet. In the case of Stop Making Sense, David Byrne walks from off stage to center. The anticipation of him performing is palpable and captured in a one-minute take that is exhilarating. Ricki and the Flash starts with a couple of foot taps and the song starts. Instead of drawing you in, he just wants you to sit back and relax. Now, this is not incompetent filmmaking, but certainly uninspired.

Not incompetent but uninspired is a very concise description of Ricki and the Flash. It does not try for anything deep. You never feel bad for watching it, as the cast is all charming and some of the jokes land, but you just want it to be better. The people making this film are capable of it. So, Ricki and the Flash is merely a passively mediocre movie. It’s one of those movies in seven months you will see on Netflix and have it on in the background while you do laundry. There’s nothing actively bad about it but not much actively good either.


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