Politics & Policy

Demme and Cody Collide in Ricki and the Flash

A humanistic director and a facetious scriptwriter are badly mismatched.

Ricki and the Flash tentatively grasps after several emotional and social ideas. Meryl Streep plays Linda, a middle-aged bar singer in the San Fernando Valley, who goes by the name Ricki Randazzo and is still chasing her whim to be a rock star. Linda personifies a hardheaded, foolhardy American pursuit of happiness: Having left her Indianapolis marriage (to Kevin Kline) and three young children many years ago, Linda is summoned back for her daughter’s nervous breakdown and a son’s marriage; she reassesses her choices, rues her failings, and makes peace.

This gimmicky plot is almost about something — which probably results from its mismatched collaborators. Diablo Cody (who was born Brook Busey) wrote 2007’s Juno – that abomination about a suburban teen smarter than all the adults around her, yet not smart enough to avoid pregnancy. Here she offers another brash, bratty female who outwits herself. Director Jonathan Demme is forced to fit his benevolent worldview into Cody’s facetious premise.

While Cody naïvely repackages the same star-abandons-her-children concept used in films from All I Desire (1953) to The Banger Sisters (2002), Demme borrows from Rachel Getting Married, his 2008 near-masterpiece (which deserved to be a bigger hit than Juno). Like Rachel, Ricki tests its heroine’s idiosyncrasies in the midst of family unease that reflects larger social discord.      

Demme is a liberal filmmaker whose artistry crosses the aisle; that’s what made his update of The Manchurian Candidate more powerful than the 1962 original (Demme’s features an on-target performance by Streep as a Hillary Clinton–type gorgon). Demme twists Cody’s self-indulgence into his own, nearly patented, multicultural humanistic comedy. Start with the fact that The Flash is a motley crew of musicians of various ages and races, including Linda’s blue-collar lover and guitarist, Greg (Rick Springfield, this film’s MVP). Then there is Linda’s face-off with her ex-husband’s black wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald); it promises fireworks, yet gets doused by the black woman’s absolute forgiveness and generosity. The rapprochement of Linda and Maureen antiseptically heals all class and race wounds. It’s sweet, but Demme’s humanism needn’t be this patronizing.      

Ricki is a beneficent movie even when it is confused, contrived, and largely unconvincing. Heroine Linda suggests a sociopathic narcissist (she calls herself “broken, a ruined woman”), who thus represents America’s current instability. A legatee of the Rock revolution, she carries the counterculture’s scars — she’s a feminist who survived a stifling marriage, and she also mourns a brother killed in Vietnam — yet she remains a freewheeling rebel.

Instead of presenting an authentic American rocker type, Demme is stuck with Cody’s self-pitying, manipulative character and story.

This résumé makes so little dramatic, psychological, or cultural sense that it contradicts the point of Demme’s previous film, an adaptation of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, that reflects our era’s fascination with power and personality. There, Demme sought to understand the consequences of individual and generational will, but Cody’s insipid heroine leads him into a different generational quandary: Linda — a purely commercial conceit — is mired in that arrested-development time warp that Hollywood exploits. She comically alienates her Gen-X children, whose middle-class privileges are not so different from her own unapologetic selfishness.

Demme’s portion of Ricki comes close to examining the Ibsen-worthy irony of millennial life — those intransigents left over from the counterculture, who can either age into conservatism or, like Linda, get slapped back by the consequence of their old self-pleasing radicalism. Al Pacino essayed a more moving, masculine version of these same regrets in the touching, though little-seen, Danny Collins. But Ricki and the Flash misses such socio-political and personal insight because the Linda character is constructed according to Cody’s Juno-esque notions.

Harboring sexual resentment, Linda frequently taunts bandmate/lover Greg, then ruins a gig with a rant about Mick Jagger’s irresponsible parenting. Cody congratulates this presumptuousness, but, thank God, Demme isn’t a spiteful director; even the film’s most explicitly political snark bears Demme’s generosity: Linda’s gay son blames his inability to marry on her voting for George W. Bush: “I was born gay!” he shouts, but Linda shouts back: “I was born Ricki!” That’s good enough to make up for Cody’s mis-timed, predictably arrogant, political grandstanding.

#related#Instead of presenting an authentic American rocker type, Demme is stuck with Cody’s self-pitying, manipulative character and story. When The Flash play a Bruce Springsteen song before an audience of frowning stuffed shirts in Indiana, the phoniness recalls Cody’s insulting Red State–Blue State antagonism in her 2011 Young Adult script. (Hasn’t she heard Steely Dan’s widely loved “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”?) The appreciation for pop music that has proved Demme’s zeitgeist sensitivity in so many films is apparent only in The Flash’s live performances, which have the vivid, vibrant sound of real musicianship. Still, that Springsteen song is too much of a liberal sop; it doesn’t match Streep’s performance of ABBA’s “Super Trouper” from Mamma Mia, which worked as great pop and a showbiz professional’s loving confession.

This film’s total inauthenticity is epitomized by the actressy Streep: Nonconformist Linda wears five finger rings, one toe ring, necklaces, bangles, and leather jacket, and she has a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag tattooed across her back. What kind of rock journeywoman is this? “We aim to please,” Linda says to her E pluribus unum bar patrons; then she does Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” — which the miscast Streep performs like a lounge singer. (Has Ricki no taste?) Streep’s no-fun mimicry recalls Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde, and Melissa Etheridge. Like her hairstyle, she’s going in three directions at once. So is the movie.

*      *      *

Fantastic Four

We’re almost done with this season’s comic book–based blockbusters. How many more insults will fanboys take? Comic-book franchises are being remade faster than old TV shows, as proven by the new Fantastic Four, a remake of the 2005 film with Chris Evans as a white Johnny Storm; here Michael B. Jordan plays a black Johnny Storm. Yet, this Obama-era Fantastic Four isn’t updated — or incendiary — enough. The visual style of director Josh Trank, who made the visionary Chronicle, deserves more moral substance.

Chronicle suggested that Trank could make emotionally potent action films, but most franchise fans’ only criterion is to see their fav comics sanctioned. Hollywood persistently pushes such fanboys (and other filmgoers) away from their deepest feelings. No wonder the end credits of Ricki and the Flash advise: “Be Moved.” While comic-book blockbusters regularly insert postscript teasers, Demme reminds us what movies are for.

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

 

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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