“Ricki and the Flash” (dir. Jonathan Demme) – Well-rounded musical drama

I’ve often said that there are things I will tolerate from the musical genre that I will not tolerate from any other. Sudden romances, heightened emotional beats, and character arcs that are earned in neither the performances nor the screenwriting, but reliably and effectively manipulate the audience into feeling something through the sheer, awesome, neurologically-evocative power of music. And yet, Ricki and the Flash, an original collaboration from director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody, may be the first musical I’ve seen that attaches this facile enhancement to a character drama whose beats are worthy of being musically heightened in the first place.

Ricki Randazzo, née Linda (Meryl Streep), is an aging rockstar who plays with a cover band co-led by her gentleman-friend Greg, who looks and shreds suspiciously like Rick Springfield. Like any good rockstar, she’s left behind her Midwestern roots – and her family – to pursue her dream, and while her glory days (in the form of a single album) are likely behind her, she still plays a bar gig in California with all the vim and vigor of Madison Square Garden. I find that I’m being a bit mean about this character not because I disliked Streep’s performance, but because she was so effective in the first half at making the character deeply unlikable. Late in the film, when she smiles and says, of attending a family event, “If I go there, something terrible will happen,” I laughed involuntarily. Then a crack appeared in Ricki’s half-smile. And Streep reveals the true pathos behind Linda’s face as she says of her family, “You don’t know these people. They despise me.”

This has probably been said quite enough, but Meryl Streep is an absolute treasure. And her ability to project instant familiarity and comfort with every detail of this character, from her decrepit apartment to her wobbly on-stage performance and rich, dusky singing voice, is unparalleled. Cody’s script gives Streep a good deal of complexity to work with, even if the character occasionally gets drunkenly didactic about the double-standards that male rockers face with regard to their family affairs. But for the majority of the film, Cody’s writing is quite strong – indeed, this may be her most mature script to date, with all of her quirk and sharp sarcasm perhaps tempered a bit by reality. This is seemingly the next sad chapter in the life of Charlize Theron‘s character from Young Adult.

When the family interaction finally happens, it’s propped up by a series of strong performances, from dapper, bourgie ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) to her decidedly non-gay divorcée daughter, Julie, played by Streep’s actual daughter Mamie Gummer. Gummer is an absolute wreck here, and I mean that in the best way. She is surely the most honest character in the film, both with herself and the rest of the cast – even if that honesty takes the form of complete disinterest in personal hygiene and a recent suicide attempt. Her looming divorce is the impetus behind bringing Linda back to her long-abandoned family in the first place, and indeed, much of the film’s strongest dramatic work comes between mother and daughter. Apart from that, Streep and Kline also share a delightful scene of family marijuana-time in which the lingering romantic nostalgia between the pair is teased, established, and appropriately not dwelt upon. Her two sons (played by Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate) are basically non-entities, imbued with a single, simple conflict apiece that contribute little to the film except a setting for the final act. They don’t drag down the film, but they certainly make it feel a bit overstuffed, especially when it manages to make such strong use of Audra McDonald with equally little screentime. McDonald plays Maureen, Pete’s “new wife” of 20+ years who did far more to raise Linda’s kids than she ever did. The script teases her arrival throughout the first half, and while McDonald and Streep ultimately only have a handful of scenes together, the tension underlying this relationship is clear and immediate. Maureen is established as an admirable woman in a great many ways, and the inevitable confrontation between the two ill-matched rivals is not only some of Cody’s sharpest dialogue; it may be the film’s best scene. It mixes emotion and exposition and a pair of stunningly executed performances and leaves the audience reeling for the start of the third act.

This is probably a good spot to mention that Ricki and the Flash is incredibly predictable, which is why I’ve been a bit looser than usual with spoilers. This is one of those vices of the musical genre that I’ll handily forgive. There was only ever one way for this film to end, with the titular band on stage playing us into the credits. But it’s in this third act that the musical elements of the film really start to shine. Scenes last for two, three minutes longer than they would in any other genre, and yet with Streep at the microphone, talented as actress and singer in equal measure, I found myself as thoroughly engrossed with the musical postscript as I had been with the dialogue preceding it.

The noticeable weak link is Springfield. His acting is not bad by any means; he’s just noticeably outmatched by Streep in every scene they share. He delivers a speech late in the film about how much he loves his kids, and his mid-Atlantic drawl and crisp, Jimmy Stewart delivery felt like an artifact of a bygone style of acting. It felt rather out of place, like he was trying much too hard in the presence of an actress who was comfortable enough not to need to. That said, Springfield is an order of magnitude better at acting than Pierce Brosnan or Russell Crowe is at singing, so if the musical genre demands crossover performers, it seems that I prefer it the Springfield way. Director Jonathan Demme impressed me here as well. This is a step outside of his prior genres (best known for The Silence of the Lambs), although the most direct spiritual predecessor to this film is his 2008 indie drama Rachel Getting Married. Like that film, Ricki and the Flash is a close-knit, dysfunctional family tale that rarely feels slight, despite its pairing with a screenwriter and genre that often risk being so.

And at this moment, I’m sad we couldn’t podcast this, because this is where Ricki and the Flash would play us out.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

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2008 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actress

Top 5 Lead Actresses:

#5: Frances McDormand – Linda Litzke, Burn After Reading


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A fun and fluffy performance in a fun and fluffy movie. This film has no grand statement to make (the last scene all but confirms this), but the actors and filmmakers clearly had a great time making it. Litzke may turn over-the-top and cartoonish about halfway through the film, but McDormand completely sells it.

#4: Rebecca Hall – Vicky, Vicky Cristina Barcelona


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Rebecca Hall first got on my radar from a delightful British comedy called Starter for 10, and this film is her strongest performance yet. It never fails to impress me when an actor manages to emote convincingly and fake an accent. Vicky, the down-to-earth American girl, is, by a slim margin, the more sympathetic character, and she could not have been given a more nuanced, emotional performance.

#3: Lina Leandersson – Eli, Let the Right One In


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Boy meets girl, girl turns out to be a vampire. This Swedish pre-adolescent romance and coming-of-age tale was easily one of the best and most effectively creepy films of 2008, and Leandersson’s understated performance is the strongest of the film. If you have any desire whatsoever to see a vampire film this year, stay far, far away from Twilight, and see this film instead.

#2: Cate Blanchett – Daisy, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


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I hate to digress, but it must be said… Cate Blanchett is just gorgeous in this film. And the sheer range of ages that they manage to convincingly make her convey is a testament to the makeup and digital artists that made this film happen. That said, Daisy is far more than a mere technical feat… She is the emotional center of this film, and despite Brad Pitt’s genuinely good turn as a hollowly written character, it is Blanchett that makes the film’s central romance seem believable. Daisy is a breathtaking testament to life in an otherwise bleak and lifeless film.

#1: Meryl Streep – Sister Aloysius, Doubt


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I once heard someone call Meryl Streep “the female Al Pacino”, who had made her recent career through over-the-top roles in films like The Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia!, and Adaptation. This film has proven that Streep still knows how to give a brilliant performance of a more realistic character. The four central performances are essential to this film’s effectiveness, and Streep’s is easily the strongest. She never wavers in her certainty of Father Flynn’s guilt, and her unforgettable scene with Viola Davis adeptly conveys this (see Part 2: Best Supporting Actresses). The final confrontation between the two leads is well worth the wait, and Streep’s pained delivery of the final line of the film will leave you haunted as you wonder what you really believe about what has taken place.

Honorable Mentions:


Jess Weixler – Teeth (yes, really)