Review: Ricki and the Flash (2015); dir. Jonathan Demme


Preamble: The trailers have been everywhere. For months. With minor tweaks here and there, the trailers give the impression that
1. they are telling the entire story of the movie
2. the movie is probably not any good.

Whoever was in charge of those trailers should … well, I don’t want to wish getting fired on anyone … but my ultimate point is that the trailers suck.

Especially since I saw the movie last night.

I have written about trailers before. They are not meant to BE the movie. They ADVERTISE the movie. I understand the difference. But why TRY to create something conventional, uninteresting, as well as misleading? Why is THAT the goal?

These are initial impressions, so they may be a bit all over the map:

All I’ll say is, I went to go see it because Meryl Streep, duh, but also because I had heard some “buzz” from critics I respect, friends and colleagues, that made me not only curious but excited. In general, the reviews have been okay, but when a review says stuff like, “Meryl Streep’s performance, this time, isn’t Oscar-worthy” or whatever (there’s a bunch out there), I don’t read any further than that line. Because there the reviewer betrays that he/she does not understand what an acting career is all about, how it develops, how it even WORKS. How does one write about an entire industry and not understand this? Do you honestly think that every time Meryl Streep acts, she’s “gunning” for an Oscar? Just because you, a critic, are obsessed with the Oscars, because it’s your Super Bowl, doesn’t mean the artists in the industry give a damn about it in the same exact way. How do you think actors think about their work? How do you think they prepare? No, seriously, I’d love to hear.

But a couple of people I really respect have been raving about the thing.

I knew that I would probably like the thing, because Meryl Streep is always interesting to watch.

But what a treat to discover that Ricki and the Flash is a bit of a mess – in a lot of respects – the kind of mess that many MANY movies avoid, the kind of mess I love. A beautiful mess. A human mess. It’s a mess because the emotions it unleashes are huge and intense (especially in the last sequence), it’s a mess because nothing really happens – and the plot is conventional – and yet you still get the sense that EVERYTHING happens and it happens in really unpredictable ways. It’s one of those things that shouldn’t work. But it does. And it’s not just because of Meryl Streep’s performance. This isn’t Meryl carrying an entire movie on her own gigantic star power. It’s an ensemble drama. Streep is always best surrounded by a vigorous ensemble.

There are subtleties of characterization (Kevin Kline is excellent, Audra McDonald really only has one scene, but she is fantastic, and her presence is felt everywhere in the film), and a ton of music (played live. Meryl Streep learned to play the guitar. Watching her mosey through the crowd in a dive bar, playing her electric guitar, getting the throngs worked up, made my WEEK.)

Todd VanDerWerff, in a FB post, remarked a lot about the Midwesten-ness of the film and how important that was, how often folks who refer to middle America as “flyover country” (rude, in my opinion) miss the subtleties in such portrayals. I lived in the Midwest for 5 years – Chicago counts, I suppose – but his comment got me thinking. (I read it after I saw the film.) It was one of the vibes I picked up on (it’s hard to miss). That area of the country is usually condescended to in film, either presented as Utopia Small-Town America or Judgmental Conservative Land. But, you know, it’s a huge region, with lots of different parts, different energies and traditions, and you can see why Ricki (or Linda, her real name) felt she had to flee. You also can see the price this woman has paid for leaving her three kids, for sure. Although there are uptight elements in the Midwest in the film, there is also a lot of chaos and humanity (as there is everywhere. It sounds elementary, but if you’ve seen a lot of films you know how often cliches are utilized.) Ricki’s daughter has gone bonkers after her husband left her. She has stopped bathing. She wears her pajamas in public. Ricki’s ex-husband has pot in the freezer for his migraines, and says stuff like, “I want to keep my cool” when he is the least cool person on the planet. Ricki’s son is gay, and she keeps holding onto the hope that he is bisexual (an interesting opposite of what you would expect: Ricki the wild free soul is not homophobic, not exactly: but she isn’t really supportive either. She’s a bit of an asshole.)

The trailers seem to show a wedding reception, etc., but by the time you get to that scene in the movie for real, you will have forgotten about the trailer and how conventional it all seems. The trailers appear to show the reception as a triumph, Ricki making an emotional speech, everyone cheering, hearts and flowers, Ricki redeemed. It’s much much more complicated than that. And truly emotional, as opposed to bullshit emotional. And that scene requires an understanding of the Midwest – at least this social strata of it. It’s not upper-crust East Coast, with yachts in the harbor. It’s not palatial lush Southern with cut-crystal decanters of bourbon. It’s not chilly-modern Los Angeles with houses high in the hills. It’s Midwestern. It’s a thing. It has its own rhythm, value, look, mood. It’s also like anywhere else: there are children named “Journey,” the bride and groom ask that people make donations to charity in their name, and have a woo-woo preacher who talks about trees and roots in his sermon. You know. There’s that element everywhere too.

Side note, along these lines:
Just look for the bride. The casting of the actress who played the bride (Hailey Gates). Watch the acting of the bride. And most important: Watch what ends up happening to the bride as the reception progresses. It is gorgeous and it comes out of that Midwestern thing I keep talking about. A less-complex film would have kept underlining the point that this woman is uptight and conventional. But it’s infinitely more subtle and human than that. Maybe there’s an innocence there, maybe that’s the word. (I just re-read David Foster Wallace’s essay about 9/11, and how he watched the footage from his neighbor Mrs. Thompson’s house. He talks about “innocence” a lot in that essay. Midwestern innocence. He does not condescend to it or sneer at it. He values it.) What I am saying is: it is specific. It’s not a stereotype. They’re not the same thing.

And it is Ricki walking into that well-established world – usually condescended to or mis-represented in film – that makes the sparks fly. She is not seen as an Angel of Freedom and Do-Your-Own-Thing, she is not an Inspirational Example of Following Your Dream. (It reminds me of a hilarious line from my cousin Mike O’Malley’s movie Certainty: “I wish someone would write a book called ‘DONT Follow Your Dreams.'”) She is not even a Narcissistic Villain. She’s kind of a loser. But she did live her life by her own code. She made choices, and in many respects her life sucks now because of those choices. Her rock star persona is not bullshit. It’s organically who she is. She’s not an adult. She’s willful, self-absorbed, and emotional. She wants to be loved. She knows she has been “bad.” She’s clumsy. She’s a bull-dozer. If you’ve met self-absorbed adults, Ricki makes perfect sense. The movie does not apologize for her or revere her. It’s not a tragedy by any means, but it feels honest.

That’s one of the gifts of Streep’s performance. You don’t feel like she’s a poseur. Or like, if she just put on a nice dress, she’d be beautiful and a good mother. One of the best moments in the film is when she and her boyfriend – played by Rick Springfield – and he KILLS IT – go and buy her a dress for the wedding. They are clearly at a Salvation Army. The dress she buys, people … It is her version of “the Midwest” and it is cheap and tragic. It’s also totally in character. She doesn’t get it altered. She can’t afford it, she wouldn’t even know to do that. Meryl Streep is a beautiful woman and in another film they would have had her show up at the wedding looking gorgeous and “classy” and everyone would do a double-take, and catch their breaths at how beautiful she really is. This is how stars are treated in film. Not here. Ricki is who she is. She’s in her 60s, for God’s sake. She’s not going to change.

The dress. It’s all about the choice of that dress for me. Whatever choice that was, whatever conversations they all had about the dress she wore to the wedding … THAT’S why this movie is good.

And finally: Rick Springfield. There is an intense scene between him and Streep in the kitchen of a bar. She is being an asshole. He has HAD it. I’ve been a Rick Springfield fan since the beginning. I watched him on General Hospital. I had his “Jessie’s Girl” album. Etc. Here, he is lean, handsome, but looks super-used-up. Wrinkles on display, grey in his beard. There’s pain on his face. Pain etched into his lines. It’s a very open performance. But that scene in the kitchen … he RUNS that scene (and let’s face it: Streep has a way of taking over. Just by showing up.) There’s a shot of him (and you can see the back of her head off to the side), and he’s talking about how his kids hate him, still, after the shit he did when they were younger. It’s one shot: he turns his head to the side a bit, for a second, as emotion comes up, and when he turns back to her – his nose has actually turned red, his whole face is red, and he says, “I love my kids.” It’s important that this is one shot: there’s no sudden cut-to-closeup. What happens to Rick Springfield in that moment happens organically, spontaneously. Emotion rises up in his entire body as we watch. The back of Streep’s head is seen to the left of frame, and you can see her nodding at that moment. Nodding at her scene partner, nodding at her boyfriend, either way, who cares.

The whole movie is filled with intense spontaneous moments like that, with emotions too big to be contained by the conventional plot. So when that final sequence comes – and it’s not over right away, that final sequence goes on … and on … and on … and on … and continues on as the credits roll … it’s the catharsis we need, the catharsis that’s been there hovering all along, and we NEED all that time to let it all out.

I’m going on a trip this weekend, but just wanted to jot these thoughts down while they are fresh. I was expecting to go into Ricki and the Flash in a forgiving mood. To meet the movie halfway. To overlook things, and focus on the performances (which I knew would be good.)

Within the first couple of scenes, that vibe vanished. And I got caught up in the story. I knew how it would go. You can see it from miles away. But it didn’t matter. It is a specific story, told on a human level. The emotion is earned. The film is left with loose ends.

Catharsis isn’t built to last into Happily Ever After. Catharsis is momentary. It has the potential to change everything. But who knows if it really will.

Ricki and the Flash gets that too.

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12 Responses to Review: Ricki and the Flash (2015); dir. Jonathan Demme

  1. Paula says:

    So great to read this because I am dying to see this movie. Fricking trailers! I’ve read your comments before on this and it is so spot on. Is it that the marketing people are so disconnected from the story (did they bother to find out anything before throwing it together?) or do they lack the creativity to paint the right picture in two minutes?

    Love the Rick Springfield shout out as well. I was a GH fan too (although it was #2 behind Days and Bo/Hope drama) and thought he was underrated as both an actor and singer. Have you seen him yet in True Detective?

    Midwest is complex. Reminds me of people throwing women characters into either virgin or whore boxes. With Midwesterners, we are viewed either as clueless innocent or uptight bigot. It’s not just characterizations on film or page but how many view us in real life so thanks for your comments on that. Preach it, sister!

    • Paula says:

      I guess there is one more stereotype out there – snarky hipster – or maybe that’s just a Mpls thing.

    • sheila says:

      I’m trying to think like a marketer. With certain movies, they “package” it, so that a fearful/cautious audience member will be like, “Oh, I know exactly what that is.” The problem is that that ignores the audience member who may NOT respond to the conventional story they’re presenting in the trailer.

      Like, be a little innovative with the trailer – maybe it will pay off.

      I am determined to see Creed, and excited about it, based on the trailer alone!

      Looking forward to hearing your thoughts once you see it, Paula!

  2. Amy says:

    Hi Sheila!

    I saw this movie yesterday based solely on your recommendation – certainly not on the trailer! – and I’m so happy I did. I loved the sequence with the bride at the end, and I think this might be my favorite Meryl role ever. (The scene where she’s exploring Maureen’s kitchen for the first time? I was beside myself.) Also – Mamie Gummer’s gelid mask of depression for the first 45 minutes we see her onscreen was just perfect.

    • sheila says:

      Amy! Hello!

      I’m so glad you liked it!! I loved the spirit of it.

      Meryl strolling through that house and looking at the inspirational plaques in the kitchen was high comedy!!

      // gelid mask of depression //

      Damn, girl, that’s a really good phrase.

      I also liked how Mom and Dad teamed up again to go confront the horrible ex-husband partying in the bar. It was a pretty stock scene – a crowd-pleaser – but I liked it symbolically. That they were fierce together in protecting their daughter – and it just happened automatically.

      • sheila says:

        Like – the scene was somehow both predictable and satisfying. There were a lot of scenes like that.

        I also loved when the whole family got stoned. “Don’t kill yourself in there …”

  3. Desirae says:

    I’d wondered about this one, but like you say the trailers were pretty dire – this makes me much more interested in it. I’m almost glad to hear it’s a bit of a mess. On a whole I think I actually like that more than a more perfectly structured movie; it indicates just being willing to let the actors GO, to let things percolate and develop in whatever direction. Plus I’m a sucker for trope-y movies that embrace conventional structure or subject while also turning said tropes on their head by making them more human and complicated by letting the material actually breathe.

    Jonathan Demme has had an interesting career, don’t you think? There’s almost no through-line in it. Like Billy Wilder or George Miller.

    Do people seriously think Meryl Streep is always gunning for an Oscar? She’s been nominated so many times they probably seem as commonplace as pocket change to her now.

    • sheila says:

      Desirae –

      // Plus I’m a sucker for trope-y movies that embrace conventional structure or subject while also turning said tropes on their head by making them more human and complicated by letting the material actually breathe. //

      Really well said! I feel that way too. So the tropes come up, and you go, “Oh, I know this, I know what’s going to happen” – and there’s something comforting about that predictability – but then if you have good actors, the tropes stop seeming like tropes – and seem like things that often happen in real life (which is true!) Like, in this movie: Ricki is a hot mess. And her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) is a conservative guy who wears sweater vests. He has re-married, a perfect woman (Audra McDonald), who keeps a gorgeous house, knows how to cook, and has raised Ricki’s kids as her own.

      So given all that: we think we know those people and how they will act. When things start to get messy, and the movie starts derailing all over the place – it feels TOTALLY human. Because we’re all “types,” but then we’re also NOT.

      I love Demme, yes. And all of his “music documentaries” are great too – it’s this whole other career. Which he brings to bear in Ricki, because there’s a ton of music in it, played live. It’s great!!

      and yeah, people look at Meryl’s career in this weird way – as though she’s interested in racking up nominations, and reaching for the brass ring every time. I don’t see that at all. Also, and this is just my observation: Many critics really really think Oscars have value. They honestly value them. (And yes, Oscars can certainly help careers. Yes. But I’m talking about something different.) I came up in a theatrical show-trash tradition, and actors love to watch the Oscars because of the celebratory aspects and the pretty dresses and the emotions. Nobody really thinks the Oscars have value beyond that. But some critics do. They get so into it. They feel personally validated when something they love wins. And I get that, I do – but to then project that onto an actor’s choices, and feelings about his or her own work … Nope. I don’t think Streep gives a damn, really.

      Also, side note: Look at that poster.

      This is the first time in the history of the entertainment business – literally – that a woman her age is alone on a poster, looking like that, OPENING a film on her name.

      I think of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis – relegated to schlock and melodrama in their 60s – still talented ambitious women – but nobody would hire them anymore.

      We have a lot of elderly actresses re-defining their place in Hollywood – Helen Mirren, the main example – but none of them have the star power that Streep does.

      It’s like she’s Tina Turner, who re-defined what a rock star is, looks like, and who kept going – just like Jagger and everyone else kept going. Old women being rock stars, movie stars. This is NEW.

      Streep has a pioneering career. I wish more people (critics anyway) really got that – and stopped looking at it from the Bell Jar of their little narrow critic world where they live for Oscar season. That’s just so not relevant on the ground in actors’ lives.

      What other 60-plus woman has had the career Streep has? Also, she’s not just doing “prestige” pictures – where she shows up for a cameo and then exits. She does those, too – but she’s also HEADLINING. She’s still a Leading Lady. And it doesn’t feel desperate. She’s telling stories that haven’t really been told before – because nobody has been interested in the experience of elderly women before – at least not in Hollywood.

      I think it’s awesome!

  4. Lizzie says:

    Yes, she’s perfectly content doing Popular movies–comedies, kid’s stuff, musicals, whatever floats her boat–along with the Prestige picture (and sometimes blurring the line between the two just with her presence).

    On a somewhat relevant note, what do you think of It’s Complicated? I watched it a few weeks ago on an airplane and I’ve been trying to articulate what I thought (and what bothered me about it) ever since. It was disorienting because it felt like half (or two-thirds) of a really good, interesting, funny movie–the scene where Alec Baldwin’s character comes and hangs out with the kids and HE thinks it was great while THEY think it was bizarre was perfectly awkward–but there were these weird “blank” spots (why did we only see 2 scenes with the girlfriend group? Was Meryl’s character supposed to be super uptight? How did she afford that house by owning a pastry shop? Why did the future son-in-law character get more development than any of the actual kids, who were kind of bland? It felt like there was a cast of thousands and so few of the characters were really compelling–unlike Something’s Gotta Give, which had fewer characters and more development for each). And while I thought that Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin were both perfectly cast and did a wonderful job (AB’s character’s persuasion, his charisma, and arrested development all shone through–and SM’s low-key charm and honesty and convincing inching out of his shell were sweet), that central triangle just didn’t work for me.
    Maybe it was jet lag or the tiny airplane screen, but it seemed weirdly like there was a void in the center of the movie–that for all the time we spent with her, Meryl’s character was the least compelling–and I was trying to figure out if it was just me, or a performance thing, or a writing thing (leaning too much on fantasy/wish fulfillment rather than character development)…

    Ignore this ramble if you want–I just wanted to love the movie whole-heartedly and I’m trying to sort out what did and didn’t work and why!

    • sheila says:

      Lizzie – Honestly, I don’t remember much of that movie. I love all of those people – but it didn’t make a huge impression. My friend Allison loved it, however – so maybe it’s time for a re-look.

      Honestly, sometimes Meryl’s star power is a problem. It leaves her isolated. Even with great people around her. I’m not sure how that works but I’ve definitely felt it before.

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