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« Glenn Close 'very gratified' by career honors | Main | The Golden Globe Nominations! »
Thursday
Dec062018

Months of Meryl: Ricki & The Flash (2015)

John and Matthew are watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep. 

 

#49 —Ricki Randazzo, a rock singer who returns home to the family she abandoned.

MATTHEW: Throughout his eclectic and gloriously unpredictable career, the late Jonathan Demme paved the way for peak performances from actresses as disparate as Mary Steenburgen, Melanie Griffith, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jodie Foster, Oprah Winfrey, Kimberly Elise, Thandie Newton, Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Debra Winger. Like George Cukor before him, Demme was devoted to telling stories about women, which comprise the bulk of his narrative output. The director committed to shaping these narratives with the same heady, inquisitive vigor and nonjudgmental consideration that electrified all of his subjects, from Anthony Hopkins’ lip-licking Hannibal Lecter to David Byrne, who indelibly bopped around the stage in a business suit at least six sizes too big during Demme’s landmark concert documentary Stop Making Sense.

Ricki and the Flash, Demme’s final narrative feature, sometimes conjures the capricious, loop-the-loop feeling of a concert documentary in its depiction of the type of story that Demme loved to tell, that of an unorthodox woman shouldering her burdens and confronting any and all perils as she forges ahead with the life she has chosen to lead...


At the center of this particular story is one of the greatest actors to ever collaborate with Demme: 65-year-old Meryl Streep, who previously played a tepid, power-suited villainess in Demme’s ballsy if bungled 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.

Streep proves far more assured in the platform boots and worn leather jackets of Ricki Randazzo, née Linda Brummel, an aging singer who long ago bid farewell to her life as an Indianapolis homemaker to a husband and three children in order to chase her dreams of rock stardom all the way to California. Decades later, Ricki is only a star in the eyes of the odd lonelyhearts, Vietnam vets, and spare millennials who frequent the Tarzana bar that she and her band, the Flash, perform in nightly. When her estranged daughter Julie (played by Streep’s own offspring Mamie Gummer) attempts suicide after her marriage goes bust, Ricki is called back to the homestead by ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) to care for and possibly make peace with the despondent child who never really knew her yet resents her existence all the same.

The premise of Ricki and the Flash suggests a maternal melodrama, something like Douglas Sirk’s All I Desire starring an older, wiser, less shameless version of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Sadie Flood from Georgia and underlined by the same class consciousness of Stella Dallas. Diablo Cody’s screenplay sometimes recognizes this potential but mostly bungles it with scattershot scenarios, as well as this witter-than-thou writer’s penchant for punchy one-liners whose mileage frequently varies from film to film. But Cody’s conception of Ricki, who has recently filed for bankruptcy and also works, by day, as a cashier at a Whole Foods-esque supermarket, is genuinely inspired and relatively bold, not least in its representation of the character’s politics. Spouting Obama digs at her shows and sporting a prominent American flag back tattoo, Streep is asked to verbalize and embody the conservative beliefs of those who claim to feel underrepresented by the film industry. At times this feels like an organic component of the character, but it just as often comes across as a winking gimmick in need of further exploration on the page, made all the more ironic by the casting of a stalwart and venerated bastion of liberal Hollywood.


Cody, Demme, and Streep implore us to empathize with Ricki despite the polarity of her political leanings by foregrounding their portrait of maternal guilt. This gesture distinguishes the film and enables Streep to fill in the character with rich emotional depth, which works in tandem here with the actress’ own inventiveness. Looking beyond the kohl eyes, straggly braids, and all-black threads, Streep weaves a subtle act of transformation by harnessing her own physical and vocal faculties to often affecting ends. Ricki’s voice is raspy and bruised by age, but her body is as limber and loosey-goosey as it might have been in her prime, the mischievous twinkle in her eye still withstanding the slings and arrows of life. Empathizing with Ricki is ultimately easier than we might expect because Streep has identified so deeply with this flawed but resilient heroine in both body and soul.

Streep’s performance, and certain elements of Demme’s narrative swan song, improved considerably upon this rewatch. What did you make of Ricki and Ricki this time around?


 

JOHN: From the moment Ricki Randazzo emerged on stage at her Tarzana residency, clad in leather and rocking out to Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” I was so pumped to watch Streep sink herself into a genuinely fresh and complicated character. Her singing immediately impresses — Ricki’s voice is spent but powerful in the way only a lifelong rock and roll musician could muster — as does her between-songs banter with the greying, baby boomer patrons in the audience, rattling off some conservative gripes before a rendition of the very modern “Bad Romance,” because, as per Ricki, “We aim to please.” Here is a 65-year-old woman with the energy and flexibility of a teenager, with the swagger of a star but the sorrow of a failure, a supermarket clerk by day but a spiky rocker by night who struggles to chase her dreams but is nonetheless compelled to keep dreaming.

Equally exciting is the premise of a mother returning to the family she abandoned in order to live out said dreams. Your reference to Sirk’s All I Desire is perfect; Ricki and the Flash is essentially a contemporary update of this unusual story involving maternal abandonment, familial estrangement, and the myriad tensions inherent in a reunion. Initially, the film delivers as a zesty character study, a fun concert documentary, and a class-conscious vision of the U.S. that most American films never even attempt. But when Ricki is summoned to help rehabilitate her suicidal daughter back in Indianapolis, the interests of the film’s director and writer split onto two different tracks: Cody’s boldfaced, cynical zingers and episodic plotting are an odd fit for Demme’s freewheeling humanist interests, both on stage and off.

Streep, of course, tries her damndest to reconcile these different tones and emphases from scene to scene, barreling forward into this dicey scenario without a shred of visible regret or compromise. How often do we see Streep look this allergic to domestic life, so ill-equipped to responsibly parent her offspring, so lacking in self-awareness and tact? In the upscale gated development where her family lives, Ricki can’t help but dress like an aging KISS groupie, and has to laugh when Julie comments that she looks like “a hooker from Night Court.” She cajoles her daughter out of much-needed therapy sessions by making early morning donut runs, during which she berates café customers who ask her to lower her voice. She gleefully maxes out Julie’s ex’s credit card on manicures, cracks jokes about finding grey hairs in intimate places, and rattles off a marathon of produce codes after smoking pot with Julie and Pete. Streep is wonderfully relaxed and insouciant in these passages; there is no critical distance between the actress and her roguish character, and she seems completely comfortable and assured inside this prickly persona.


For a situation so rife with possible awkwardness and discomfort, the film quickly becomes disinterested in going there, or in going anywhere really. Ricki is either deliberately incapable of reflection or otherwise refreshingly defensive of the unsympathetic choices, and concessions, she has made. “It was my dream, man!” she admits with unironic sincerity to her husband amid the one tempestuous argument the pair indulge in during her stay. Ricki and her brood essentially arrive at a detente: she is incapable of being the parent they need(ed), and they accept this, with varying degrees of anger and indifference. The film becomes less about Ricki’s inability to mother or express regret over her decision and more about the unbridgeable differences between her and the family she left behind. Major story beats are subsequently handled through song, like when Ricki’s bandmate and boyfriend (Rick Springfield) reveals, during a gig, that he sold his beloved guitar to afford airfare to the wedding of her son (Sebastian Stan) or when Ricki and the Flash later perform at the reception, a pat reconciliation that inspires joy but also a tinge of skepticism.

The thinness of this story’s second act and its sheer avoidance of addressing the thorny issues at the film’s core (Ricki’s conservatism, her possible regrets, her relative poverty, her children’s unhappiness) leaves Streep all dressed up but with few places to actually go. The lone exception is a scene in which Streep spars with Audra McDonald as Maureen, Pete’s longtime second wife, who reads Ricki as no one else dares try. McDonald achieves this without dipping into the exasperated caricature that so many of Streep’s scene partners fall victim to, and she forces Streep to recalibrate her character’s self-awareness and professed nonchalance. Streep’s performance, though intriguing and occasionally delightful, never reaches the heights of her capabilities, nor the inherent complexities that Cody and Demme leave untapped.

How else could this have been a more satisfying film and performance? How hard do you stan Ms. Randazzo?


MATTHEW: I wouldn’t say I necessarily stan Ms. Randazzo, but on this second viewing, I found that Streep actually did more to resolve the schism between Demme’s restless spirit and Cody’s obfuscation than I initially believed back in 2015. She doesn’t let her considerable sympathy for Ricki deter her from crafting a three-dimensional characterization, one that pleads with us to see yet never necessarily accept Ricki, warts and all. Early on, Streep shows us a Ricki whose pride is easily wounded at any mention of her luckless career or shambles of a life, which doesn’t mean she takes any extra care with the sensitivities of others, including those closest to her, like Springfield’s loving and forgiving Greg. The most engrossing scene in the entire movie is her war of words with the great McDonald, in which Ricki tries and fails to one-up a woman who was never really her rival. Here, Streep centers the character’s envy, the intensity of which signals just how comfortable Ricki has regrown in the domestic situation she fled all those years ago, finding herself jealous of a woman whose current role is the one she decisively threw away. By the end of this encounter, Ricki’s not-so-subtle nastiness only makes her appear pathetic next to the poised and pitying Maureen, who can’t help but commiserate with Ricki even after cutting her down to size.

Streep is unafraid to chase the uncomfortable beat in the tense exchanges that make up the majority of the film, as when Ricki carelessly hurls barbs at Greg during the Flash’s set or fumbles a conversation with her openly gay son Adam (Nick Westrate) about the “choice” of his sexuality. When Ricki reunites with her ex-husband and children, she doesn’t burst at the seams with deep, withheld affection but instead regards them with the nervous and fond cordiality of a distant relative. Kline’s casting is particularly crucial here; our outside knowledge of his decades-long friendship and professional history with Streep makes their characters’ relationship entirely plausible. Cody is wise to depict Ricki and Pete as a pair of friendly if uneasy exes, rather than spiteful adversaries, knowing that this middle ground is the space where most divorced couples really reside and makes for a honeypot of ambiguous character motivation. The uncertainty that each one feels in the other’s presence leads to a genuinely moving scene of spontaneous, pot-induced bodily contact that rekindles their flame for a matter of seconds, only to just as quickly burn out.


As is her wont, Streep really comes alive in the most openly emotional scenes of the film, and the reservoir of feeling she invests in this character and her circumstances may not be enough to make Ricki cohere, but they certainly stir the soul on more than one occasion. During her post-Indianapolis homecoming show, Ricki grabs ahold of the mic and furiously delivers a spiraling monologue about the double standards held against women who go against the grain in an attempt to live their dreams. In the scene directly after this, a distraught Ricki tries to push away Greg by dragging herself down, and the sniveling volatility of Streep’s approach gives us a poignantly self-aware glimpse at the weary and humiliated rocker who had the passion for music but never the promise. In moments like these, Streep fulfills the melodramatic possibilities of Demme’s film by embracing their underlying pathos with the rough tightness of a bear hug.

I would unquestionably take a dozen more Ricki and the Flashes before another Iron Lady, if only because Streep’s finest moments here remind us what makes her open-hearted, crowd-pleasing approach to the art of acting so special and downright overwhelming, especially in this current era of her career, in which the actress is more eager to simultaneously move and amuse us than ever. Streep doesn’t always hit her marks as Ricki, but when she does, it’s mighty gratifying, whether she’s filled to the brim with sadness, tears pooling over in her eyes, as she holds her son’s wedding invitation or stunned with gratitude at Greg’s generosity before launching into an infectious rendition of Mentor Williams’ “Drift Away” or giving her all to the perfectly-chosen Bruce Springsteen cover that ends the film. As Streep strums and belts her heart out in this quintessential Demme finale, the film’s manifest problems recede from view. Ricki offers her son music, the only gift she can afford but also the one she holds dearest, as if to show him that, no matter the time or distance, her love has not gone anywhere.

 

Catch up with 'Months of Meryl' 

  1. Julia (1977)
  2. The Deer Hunter (1978)
  3. Manhattan (1979)
  4. The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)
  5. Kramer vs Kramer (1979)
  6. The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)
  7. Still of the Night (1982)
  8. Sophie's Choice (1982)
  9. Silkwood (1983)
  10. Falling in Love (1984)
  11. Plenty (1985)
  12. Out of Africa (1985)
  13. Heartburn (1986)
  14. Ironweed (1987)
  15. A Cry in the Dark (1988)
  16. She-Devil (1989)
  17. Postcards from the Edge (1990)
  18. Defending Your Life (1991)
  19. Death Becomes Her (1992)
  20. The House of the Spirits (1993)
  21. The River Wild (1994)
  22. The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
  23. Before and After (1996) 
  24. Marvin's Room (1996)
  25. Dancing at Lughnasa (1998)
  26. One True Thing (1998)
  27. Music of the Heart (1999)
  28. Adaptation (2002)
  29. The Hours (2002)
  30. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
  31. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
  32. Prime (2005)
  33. A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
  34. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
  35. Dark Matter (2007)
  36. Evening (2007)
  37. Rendition (2007)
  38. Lions for Lambs (2007)
  39. Mamma Mia! (2008)
  40. Doubt (2008)
  41. Julie & Julia (2009)
  42. It's Complicated (2009)
  43. The Iron Lady (2011)
  44. Hope Springs (2012)
  45. August Osage County (2013)
  46. The Homesman (2014)
  47. The Giver (2014)
  48. Into the Woods (2014)

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Reader Comments (15)

Was this casting supposed to suggest the alternate storyline of "what if Joanna Kramer never came back?" Was this similarity intentional, or coincidental?

December 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJames from Ames

ON a second viewing, I too, thought the movie better...

Streep seems to hit all the right notes... even if you do not agree with them.

She again shows her huge diverse characterizations.

IMO. No other actress (present or past ) could have her ability to achieve this.

December 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Besides the horrible music (which justifies tremendously why her career never took off) this is a very enjoyable movie. It avoids a lot of clichés I expected to happen (considering how it was promoted) making the movie feel much more sincere. It reminded me a lot to The Wrestler, a movie I still hold dearly to my heart. I also find very refreshing how Streep does not try to make Ricki as empathetic as previous characters (or almost every actor with every character they play) even though most lines in the script about her current situation seems to suggest otherwise. A truly great performance of hers. Much more natural (and better) than some of her Oscar nominated performances. So strange she wasn't even nominated at the Globes for this. Stupid unfair world.

December 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

A better performance than her entire Oscar nominated output in the past 10 years.

December 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterevangelina

I really enjoyed this movie, and I think it’s Streep’s best work this decade.

December 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

^ Her best since Prada actually.

December 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

Love that she did this film in her sixties and is still trying out new things. She never stops exploring and expanding her craft.

December 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

When I saw this movie, I went in thinking the character of Ricki was going to be like Suzanne in "Postcards From the Edge" with more musical numbers. But I found Ricki harder to like than I expected, and the script more of a shambling mess.
However, I did appreciate the world of the 'never made it to the bigtime' musician. How many of us know people who are local actors or musicians who love their art but support themselves as clerks, cashiers, etc.
That part rang true for me, following a dream can cost, and Streep plays that aspect without apology but with knowledge of the high price. I walked out thinking it ran a little long but was an interesting B+ movie.
I re-watched this recently on Netflix and found it hung together better than I remembered. I want to echo your appreciation for Audra Mcdonald, and Kevin Kline. While I still find it a jolt to see Streep playing a conservative, her scenes with Mamie Gummer are physically so striking. As a time capsule this film will hold up well, and 20 years from now people will see it as a precursor to Trumpian times.

December 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Audra McDonald absolutely steals this film in the scene you mentioned by being real with Streep the Actress.

December 6, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I still don't know if the movie is very good or very bad, but I had such a good time at the movie theatre.

December 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Peggy -- i did too. this article makes me want to revisit

December 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I enjoyed this as well and thought Meryl was quite good in it. I also really like Jenny Lewis and thought she deserved a Best Song nod for "Cold One." It would be nice to have a recorded version of Lewis singing that song, but since the film didn't really take off, I think that ship has sailed.

December 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJJM

No wonder people ***get*** this film more in a post-Trump world. On its release it did the unthinkable by putting two Americas into the same family and letting them at one another. Now that doesn’t seem particularly weird. Surely it doesn’t need to be Iron Lady OR Ricki! They’re facets of the same character! The film seemed thinned by budget constraints, particularly in the second half, like some exec cut a few nuances believing it was making the plot move faster.

December 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Burge

I like Streep a lot in the movie, and indeed the movie itself - but also felt it fell apart the second act and that some of the songs were (unintentionally?) painful to sit through. Like is mentioned in the article I have a lot more time for this performance than The Iron Lady and some of the other recent Oscar nominated work.

December 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEoghan McQ

I love this movie and Meryl’s performance. I hope this is one of those that people will appreciate over time.

December 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBC

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