Watching Ricki and the Flash is a lot like listening to a high school rock band’s cover tape; it wants to be different, it wants to make its own mark on the established sensibilities of the art upon which it is based, it wants to be Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, but it inevitably ends up sounding a bit too much like a motion picture soundtrack, full of random tracks from the most unlikely and eclectic sources, covers which add nothing to the tracks upon which they are based.
Indeed, if Ricki and the Flash were a motion picture soundtrack, one could neatly summarise it by the track listing you’d find on the back of its diamond case; there are the hit songs from the established veterans, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline being the headline acts, your usual mix of sugary pop-songs written with lyrics fervently adherent to the feel-good comedy creed, followed by some indie hits from relatively unknown artists sprinkled in for filler, and a few truly poignant tracks to make Ricki and the Flash a mix tape to leave you wondering exactly what you just watched, and how all of the characters managed to end up so seemingly happy by the time the credits roll and the final chord is struck.
The narrative of Ricki and the Flash centres on Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep), a woman who left her young family to follow her dream of becoming a rockstar. Years later an older Ricki finds herself in L.A. working in a supermarket and playing gigs at a local bar to make ends meet. The family Ricki left behind is thriving in Indianapolis, financially if not mentally–many members of the family still hold a grudging resentment against Ricki for the life choices she made as a young woman; namely abandoning her kids in pursuit of her – some would say failed – dream. When Ricki’s daughter’s marriage collapses through infidelity Ricki is given a chance to mend bridges with her estranged children.
Written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jonathan Demme, Ricki and the Flash sounds like a hit on paper; Cody is known for her fantastic characterisations – especially of women – and Demme is a reliable filmmaker who gave us – among other great films – The Silence of the Lambs. But instead of a film full of great characterisation and a clear narrative, Cody and Demme deliver a film confused as to what it is trying to say. The result is a film which feels lesser than the sum of its parts.
The film begins by going through the feel-good comedy motions we have come to expect as an audience, the plot bounces from scene to scene, filled with the usual gags, stressing the juxtaposition of Ricki and her ex-husband Pete’s (the grossly wasted Kevin Kline) completely different ways of life. This opening third of the film revolves around Ricki reconnecting with her daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer), smoking weed with her ex-husband, and being shamefully rude to Pete’s new wife Maureen (Audra MacDonald);it is the weakest of the film’s acts, the filmmakers seemingly intent on squeezing in as many comedy clichés as they can to bring levity to the film at the cost of clarity and purpose.
The second act is better. Propped up by some inspired dialogue on the difference between mothers and fathers in the eyes of society, the double standard applied to women condemned to being ‘bad mothers’, the second act differentiates itself from the herd. The speech takes place between Ricki and her new beau, aging rocker Greg (Rick Springfield), on a stage in a smoky bar in front of a captive audience and leads into the obligatory showcase of Meryl Streep as rockstar – what most people probably paid the ticket price to see – and she does a great job of pulling off the role of an ageing rock ‘n’ rolla. Is there anything she can’t do?
The third act, while little better than the first, at least gives us more rock ‘n’ roll goodness, and a room full of the most inspired casting for ‘snooty white people at a wedding’ in the history of cinema.
Ricki and the Flash‘s biggest strength is also its greatest weakness; ambiguity is the stuff of life and where the film shines is its portrayal of Ricki as a mother and as a woman. The film reminds us there are very few real villains in the world, only shades of failure and unrealistic expectations. Ambiguity as a theme is the film’s strongest suit; the flip-side of this ambiguity is the film’s wavering direction and narrative purpose, and its magnetic pull toward bathos. Ricki and the Flash had all the potential to be another fine Diablo Cody film in the vein of Juno, instead it becomes a film without the signature moves Cody is known for, opting instead for something altogether more anodyne.
Ultimately Ricki and the Flash is a fun film for those expecting the usual feel-good comedy formula; but for anyone expecting something deeper and more profound, you will catch glimpses of depth within this film, glimpses all too quickly left behind for the shallows of the relentless Hollywood-happy-ending we have all come to expect, if not want.