Movie Review: Ricki and the Flash
By Ben Gruchow
August 13, 2015
Meryl Streep is genuinely striking in Ricki and the Flash. Usually dressed in black, with heavy makeup, punk-rock hairstyle, and a gravelly, roughened voice, she’s the least surprising thing about the movie by being the most surprising thing. That the character she creates is vivid and believable is indicative of an actress invested in going all the way, but that’s well-known as Streep’s method. She plays Ricki Rendazzo, lead singer of a California bar band who’s called to Indiana by her ex-husband when their daughter breaks down after a nasty divorce. Streep’s greatest asset (her ability to effectively mimic just about any nationality, regional dialect, background, you name it) complements the character arc, and her greatest liability (that she mimics so well that her performances are sometimes impressions in search of a character) feeds into Ricki just as readily.
The movie around Streep isn’t bad, either, although it’s late to the party. Actually, that’s understating it; the first act of Ricki and the Flash seems to go to some length to avoid accidentally ginning up any energy or much reason to care about the characters or story. This is mostly down to a fairly ridiculous amount of posturing by the cast: there have been nasty divorces and moody children, but rarely has there been a character as fiercely non-functional as Mamie Gummer’s Julie. This individual can’t be bothered to get dressed to go out to a formal dinner. The extremism of Julie’s depression, as it’s depicted, distracts from each scene it appears in, and it appears in a lot.
The low point is that dinner sequence, which also introduces us to Ricki’s two sons and a few others. It’s an agonizingly protracted scene that seemingly exists only to have every character verbalize a single assigned personality trait and run it into the ground. It’s a good example of how something that reads appropriately on the page sinks or swims based on an actor’s handling. Here, it sinks; there’s visibly an effort early in the film to draw a straight line between Julie’s divorce and her sense of abandonment by her mother, but it’s overshadowed by the showiness of the acting.
There are other false notes: an altercation between Julie’s parents and her own ex-husband feels misplaced (fair is fair, though: Streep still sells Ricki’s parting shot). At other times, the movie seems to forget that while Ricki is perhaps a little emotionally damaged, she’s not the destructive person certain scenes make her out to be. The screenplay may set this up as a somewhat accurate reflection of a woman who thinks she doesn’t know how to offer the proper support to another person, and therefore doesn’t even try, but it doesn’t make for much of a personal anchor to grab onto. We don’t get much of a sense of who Ricki is, despite her appearance in every scene, and so Ricki and the Flash just drifts for a good chunk of its running time. It’s also choppily edited at points; there’s a cut from a phone conversation in a grocery store to the exterior of an apartment complex that momentarily takes us out of whatever’s happening in the story because we’re trying to regain our bearings.