October 22, 2017

Meryl Streep demonstrates her astonishing talent in Ricki and The Flash

To get one fairly minor cavil out of the way: one or two scenes in Ricki and The Flash (2015) are unartfully staged—not mangled but, given the overarching appeal of the film, annoying—and there are one or two others in which the contextual tone is miscalculated. This is surprising with Jonathan Demme at the helm. His resume includes A Master Builder, Rachel Getting Married, Silence of the Lambs, and riveting concert films (most memorable, Stop Making Sense with the Talking Heads), but there you have it. The mistakes, if puzzling, are relatively small, and the more important news is that they do not seriously impede Ricki’s overall dynamic and impact. It’s a very pleasing entertainment, Meryl Streep proves yet again that she’s not only a rare and astonishing talent but arguably the gutsiest screen actor in history, and many viewers are likely to find—more than may seem apparent at the time— that the film leaves them with a provocative welter of thoughts and emotions.

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We all know how some family members will, from time to time, say, “You’re all grown up!” Other family members—the really wise and wonderful ones, and for all their indulgence—are more likely to say, “You’re so grown up!” They have learned enough about living to know that pronouncements of ultimate maturity are neither inspiring nor true. RICKI AND THE FLASH reminds us that growing up is a lifelong process, that in those lives most fully lived it never ends.

Written by Diablo Cody (Juno), Ricki and The Flash features Streep as Ricki Randazzo, who in her former life was Linda Brummell of Indianapolis, wife of Pete (Kevin Kline) and mother to three children she left behind when she set out for the coast with stars in her eyes. The stars did not materialize. Ricki works hard but her day job as a check-out person, ringing up expensive organic groceries, just manages to keep real poverty at bay. But five nights a week at a Tarzana dive called The Salt Well, Ricki fronts her band The Flash on the scuzzy stage and they rock out as if their lives depend on it. Her fellow guitarist and would-be soulmate Greg (Rick Springfield) quips, “She thinks this is Madison Square Garden”. Out of the blue her ex-husband Pete calls her and asks for help with daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s own daughter)—because stepmother Maureen (Audra McDonald) is away looking after her ailing father. Pete is desperate. Julie has been blindsided by the discovery of her husband’s unfaithfulness and his abrupt and recent exit and is suffering from severe, nearly paralyzing depression, and Pete asks Ricki/Linda to come home and try to act like Julie’s mother again, if only for a couple days. The prodigal mother isn’t warmly welcomed by her now-grown children (Julie has two brothers, Adam and Josh). Though some thawing begins, there are missteps, Maureen returns, and thus the tale unfolds.

Even among those who carp about her vaunted technique and cerebration, it will have to be acknowledged that this is one of Streep’s most naturalistic performances. Ricki has somewhat limited intelligence but she has sharp animal instincts, a measure of bravery, and the soul and commitment of an impassioned musician. Streep learned to play electric guitar, quite impressively, for the role, and anyone who’s been paying attention knows she has the vocal chops. (Her voice here is husky but assured, with traces of Raitt and Ronstadt and perhaps the Mother Earth days of Tracy Nelson, but it is indelibly her own.) Streep’s vocals, stalwart and vulnerable, are the visceral grounding of both her characterization and, in the end, of the film itself. Ricki can be at times unsympathetic, and though she can occasionally be savvy she’s no brain-trust and she is without deep powers of imagination. She lacks both physical and social grace, and it is only when she plays guitar and sings that she achieves confidence, ease in her skin, a rugged handsomeness. This is no party trick—and there’s not a whit of patronization in Streep’s performance: it’s real and it’s credible. And Demme’s direction is at its most certain in evincing this transformative aspect of the film’s mis en scene.

If you’ve seen Mamie Gummer’s running character gig on CBS’ “The Good Wife” you may be prepared for her turn here as Julie–but probably not quite. Let’s put it this way: if you were a young actor called to a showdown competition in demonstrating concentration and force you wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark alley. Gummer gives Julie’s post-break-up shock and disoriented anger an unnerving ferocity. It’s a cauterizing performance.

Kline does his always intelligent and deftly elegant work. His Pete has just the right mixture of strength, gentleness, and the slightly distracted self-effacement of a man who is at peace with having few delusions about his place in the scheme of things. We can see why Ricki must at once have attracted and confounded him and why he and the calmly efficient Roberta would have chosen one another for sanctuary. (The great Audra McDonald has little screen time but she gives us what we most need to know of Maureen.) And Springfield is just fine as Ricki’s cool, steady, good-hearted singer-bandmate. When in his most demanding, emotionally naked scene, he professes his love, Ricki finally recognizes Greg’s full measure as a man. It’s a genuine and moving epiphany and a vital key to the ongoing redemption of the film’s other relationships.

Round Two brings Ricki—this time with Greg—back to Indianapolis for son Josh’s wedding, and the film moves toward an ending that may feel simultaneously a bit contrived yet not unearned. (Many viewers are likely to perceive multiple dynamics of generosity palpably at work in this project and that no doubt evokes our own generosity in wanting to embrace it.)

Some criticism of the Ricki and The Flash may suggest that the psychological impacts the three young adults have sustained because of their parents’ divorce and Ricki’s leaving to pursue her career are not fully explored. The focus of the film, however, is not on them—that would have been a wholly other film. Enough information is implied about their mother’s absence, and about the ensuing years of support and the comfortable life their successful father and intelligently caring stepmother have provided. In the course of their rocky rapprochement with their mother, their maturity forces them to acknowledge what their earlier emotions have not: there is always more than one side to a story.

The focus of the film is Ricki—it’s an exploration of whoever and whatever she is at the core—whatever she is and is not, and what her newly recalibrated relationships with her adult children and with Greg may help her realize about life.

After the mixed-to-poor results of the initial familial visit, Ricki tells Greg that her children don’t love her. Rather than dispute this—and speaking of his own adult children and the mistakes he made with them early on—he judiciously advises, “It’s not their job to love you, but it’s your job to love them”. Though this seems indisputable, the strength of the film, and the wisdom of it keeping its sights on Ricki, is that these children are no longer children, and it is indeed now a part of their job to be adults. They must learn that it is their job to appreciate the gifts that have been given them, deploy their intelligence and resources, and make themselves capable of forming new perspectives, of finding new means and directions for growth, and learning—as all humans must, repeatedly, in all stages of life—to forgive.

That’s what Ricki is learning as the credits roll. An unexceptional human being of average intelligence who has been directed by her own insecurities, strengths only partially understood and inconsistently tapped, and some degree of talent—she learns to offer her children, as well as Greg, only what she has and who she is. No longer driven by a fear of not being perfect at anything, she will try to be as whole as possible with what she is, and she is beginning to understand that just fully showing up, in whatever degree and quality the new normal with Greg and her children may be, is the only way to play it.

This little film reminds us that, whether with the young, partners, or anyone else in our proximity, the struggle toward honest self-awareness may be one of the most useful models any of us can share.

– Hadley Hury

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