Friday, August 28, 2015

Ricki and the Flash (2015)

Writer Diablo Cody has emerged as the pre-eminent storyteller of women who have to come to terms with their realities. It started with her Oscar-winning debut, Juno (2007), in which Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) dealt with her unplanned pregnancy. It continued with her Showtime series United States of Tara (2009-11), in which Toni Collette played a woman with multiple personalities, and Young Adult (2011), starring Charlize Theron as a ghostwriter for young-adult novels who tries to rekindle a high school romance. Even her maligned horror flick Jennifer's Body (2009), starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried, at least had the virginal central character realizing that her best friend was possessed by a demon, and her oft-forgotten directorial debut Paradise (2013) centered on Julianne Hough's crisis of faith.

Her latest, Ricki and the Flash, continues the trend, and proves that she's mastered the art of characterization in her storytelling. The film concerns Ricki (Meryl Streep), a would-be rock star who left her family behind in Indiana to move to Los Angeles and pursue her music career. She plays a local bar with her band, the Flash, mostly playing a mixture of classic rock and jammy takes on recent pop songs (for the youth, you see). However, she's called back home when her daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer), has attempted suicide after husband has left her. Ricki's not exactly welcome though: Julie's hostile from years of estrangement, ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) has remarried to Maureen (Audra McDonald), and where one of her sons, Max (Gabriel Ebert), is openly angry at her, her other son, Josh (Sebastian Stan), is friendly but has chosen not to invite her to his wedding, or even tell her about it.

More after the jump.

Of course, there's little doubt that everything will come to a happy ending; the film is nowhere near as caustic towards its characters as Young Adult, and veteran filmmaker Jonathan Demme's (The Silence of the Lambs, Rachel Getting Married) direction is warm, not prickly. But what's refreshing about the film is how that happy ending comes about: the narrative unfolds organically, each scene the result of character actions from the previous rather than being placed in a pre-existing blueprint. This may sound like Storytelling 101, but it's remarkable how many films have characters driven by the story rather than vice-versa. It's a testament to the strength of Cody's writing that the film works so effectively.

It helps, too, to have Demme in the director's chair. The further from The Silence of the Lambs time becomes, the more that film seems like an anomaly in the filmmaker's oeuvre. Instead, Demme's films seem more and more to alternate between intimate family dramas (like this film and Rachel Getting Married) and concert films for Neil Young and other rock & roll stalwarts. This makes him an ideal choice for this film: not only is he able to masterfully handle the drama, but he imbues the musical numbers with pathos and genuine musicality. In fact, the film's standout sequences all revolve around performance: Ricki quietly crooning "Cold One" (an original written by former Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis) in her living room for Pete and Julie, the Flash doing Dobie Gray's "Drift Away" through which Ricki discovers the sacrifice her longtime guitarist/boyfriend Greg (Rick Springfield) has made, and a raucous rendition of Bruce Springsteen's live staple "My Love Will Not Let You Down." All of these are elevated by Demme's understanding of how to film musical performance, lending each song weight for the characters performing them. The performances are extensions of both the characters and the actions.

Yet it's the film's performances that truly sell it. Kline delivers terrifically subtle work as Pete, serving as a reminder that he's long been an undervalued utility player even at the height of his fame. Springfield isn't exactly known for being a great actor, but he acquits himself very well here, lending believability to his affections for Ricki. After years of false starts, Gummer - Streep's daughter - seems to have finally found a film that fits her talents, and she makes the most of it with her touching, uproarious performance as Julie. Of course, the main attraction here is Streep. She's typically magnificent, delivering exactly the kind of nuanced, tricky performance that one would expect of her. She also handles the musical performances splendidly, her lilting alto a perfect match for the song selections. Quite simply, she's magic.

Especially in the dog days of August, it's refreshing to have a film come along that's truly excellent and moving on a human level. That's exactly what Ricki and the Flash is: an unassuming film of great beauty. A-

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