An uplifting story of a family reunited isn’t exactly what you get in Jonathan Demme’s consistently delightful Ricki and the Flash, a film that deals with self-delusion for most of its runtime. Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody declare as much in the film’s opening scene – as the titular rock goddess (Meryl Streep) and her band play through Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl”, the stage lights and tight close-ups give way to wider shots of their venue: a dive bar in the San Fernando Valley, where the Flash seem to have a weekly, if not nightly, residency. The place is barely half-full and the regulars on bar stools look like they haven’t moved from their place in decades. It’s a comfortable stasis, an oasis away from her job as a cashier at WholeFoods, and a place where Ricki’s throwaway stage patter about how bad President Obama’s tenure has been can be met with quiet affirmation.
The calculated ignorance is partly a persona, though one Ricki herself isn’t outwardly conscious of. By living in—and for—her musical fantasy, she effectively shuts herself off from those around her, particularly her bandmate and sometimes fling Greg (a brilliantly cast Rick Springfield), and attempts to file away the guilt she feels about deserting her children. The plot kicks into gear, though, when these boundaries begin to shatter. Ricki, née Linda Brummel, walked out on her young family in the ’80s in search of musical success as a solo artist, via a trip to Los Angeles that never ended. Though her three now-adult children, raised by her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and his wife Maureen (Audra McDonald), view her as something of an embarrassment, she’s asked to come back to Indianapolis to help her daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer), whose recent marriage has swiftly imploded.1
Whilst the broad strokes of Cody’s script are mostly conventional, in particular the film’s final act, it’s packed with darkly comic subtext, impressing through its cutting dialogue and a continuation of her fascination with delusional suburban contentment. When Ricki visits the new Brummel family home she finds it in a gated community of cookie-cutter mansions, individual success and achievement neatly parceled into faux-luxury; in a very amusing piece of dialogue Kline’s character sees it as living “like Jefferson”.
Just as in Cody’s incendiary Young Adult, Ricki’s ‘otherness’ in the community doesn’t necessarily position her as our narrative conduit, Cody just as willing to mock aspects of the family’s relatively privileged upbringing as Ricki’s own remarkably out of touch worldview.2 The film’s centrepiece sees these two focuses come to a head, a hilarious dinner sequence in which Ricki meets the fiancée of one of her sons and is reminded that her other son is gay. The overlapping dialogue and miscommunication is met with uncomfortable reveals, courtesy of Julie’s blunt questioning of her siblings. In scenes like this it becomes clear that Gummer is the film’s greatest asset, her sharp yet casual delivery of scathing lines makes her a perfect fit for Cody’s script, and perhaps even one by Alex Ross Perry. Kline also impresses in what amounts to the straight man role; a great deal of pleasure can be derived from any moment in which he is slightly flummoxed.3
What Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn bring to the table is a tenderness towards the characters, in particular Streep’s Ricki, whose internal malaise lifts her beyond caricature. For the most part it’s an intimately rendered story, gone is the handheld camerawork from Demme and Quinn’s first collaboration, the fantastic Rachel Getting Married but it retains some of that film’s vibrant colours, injecting more life into the frame than in their most recent work, 2013’s underseen Ibsen adaptation A Master Builder.4 The musical scenes are mostly restrained, something of a surprise considering Demme’s concert films, but in a way that occasionally works wonders; Streep’s performance of Ricki’s own “Cold One” on acoustic guitar for her ex-husband and daughter is remarkably powerful.5
It’s easy to view Ricki and the Flash from afar as a feel good comedy about mother/daughter relationships – the line “sometimes a girl just needs her mother” even crops up in here – but Cody and Demme are operating on a more subtle level than that. Even in spite of the film’s boisterous finale (the credits even have their own dance number), the central conflict is revealed to be less about a mother being forgiven for her absence than a woman starting to reconcile with her own past, with this emotional hook Trojan horsed in amongst sets of endearingly goofy cover songs.6
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