Either Jonathan Demme is punking us, or he completely forgot that he has a rather disturbing history with Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” Demme’s new dramedy Ricki and the Flash opens with Meryl Streep performing this iconic rock jam, blissing out in the throes of its guitar riffs, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the last time this filmmaker used this song was right before a misogynistic serial killer kidnapped a senator’s daughter in Silence of the Lambs.
It’s a funny moment that, perhaps unintentionally, sets the stage for a film of weird contradictions. Ricki is a free-spirited hard rock Republican who skipped out on her kids for a life of musical glamour, but Ricki only ever cut a single record, and now she spends most of her time working the checkout line at a not-quite-Whole Foods. The closest she ever got to stardom was headlining a cover band as a not particularly happening California bar. Apparently she just can’t quit show business, even though she mostly shovels elephant shit.
Ricki doesn’t flee back to the comfort of her old family and affluent midwest lifestyle; she is beckoned there by her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline), who needs help with their daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer), whose marriage has just collapsed. So off Ricki traipses, rhinestoned and guitar cased, back into their lives and setting everything straight again. Sort of. She gets Julie to wash her hair and change her clothes but she can’t quite get anyone to forgive her for generating their lifelong abandonment complexes. And damn right, they really shouldn’t.
Ricki and the Flash toys with hokey sentimentality, that feel good tripe that makes films about family reunions and unpacked baggage such a successful cottage industry amongst the sentimental and weepy. But the cast is too fine for that, too earnest and smart. And Diablo Cody’s screenplay is too fascinated with the idea of a woman who is decent but simultaneously selfish, who can somehow crash a wedding and make it all about her without losing completely losing our sympathy. That sounds like a compliment, but more than anything it’s actually the problem.
This is a proper character drama trapped in a gooey web of heartstrings, and you’ll be forgiven if you want it to pluck off. The subtle character work downplays the big emotions, and the old fashioned melodrama undermines any attempt at genuine complexity. Ricki makes a seemingly important speech about how Mick Jagger abandoned his kids but got away with it because he’s a man, but she neglects to point out that he was also the lead singer of The Rolling Stones, and that putting your act first and foremost makes a heck of a lot more sense when you’re part of the biggest band in the world.
Ricki and the Flash has the same problem. Coming up short is one thing, but coming up short on only modest ambitions is another thing altogether. The cast does fine work – especially Rick Springfield, believe it or not, as Streep’s long-suffering lead guitar love interest – but they can’t quite jam with the off-key story they’re telling.
One imagines that there is somewhere a happier world, where Ricki and the Flash is six of one thing or at least half a dozen of the other. But a film divided is a film conquered, if only by mixed blessings. Ricki and the Flash is not a terrible film, and can easily be sat through, but it won’t leave anybody screaming “encore.”
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.