By Noel Vera
Ricki and The Flash
Directed by Jonathan Demme
NOT A BIG FAN of the dramatic Meryl Streep. All that technical perfection, the precision, the rather chilly Nordic beauty in the service of some of the most impassioned dramas in recent Hollywood (Sophie’s Choice, The French Lieutenant’s Woman) leaves me, well, cold.
Oddly enough it’s in Fred Schepisi’s A Cry in the Dark where Streep is at her most frigid — where she alienated not just the audience but almost everyone in Australian society — that I found her most effective. Streep in a severe Joan of Arc ‘do casts impassive eyes over the courtroom audience, slightly more annoyed eyes at the television camera, and the disapproval radiated at her is almost palpable; seems the public is punishing her less for killing her child than for refusing to give them the heartrending family melodrama they crave. You’re disturbed by this indictment of media and public opinion; you’re — yes — moved by the sight of this emotionally stunted woman struggling to hold on to her sense of self when everyone else clearly wants her to let go.
Strangely enough her flaws — the perfection, the precision, the chill beauty — become virtues in her comedies: in She Devil she’s the bright point in an otherwise dull film; in Postcards from the Edge she’s funny and sings (she’s got a fine voice, and early in her life took opera lessons from vocal coach Estelle Liebling), an irresistible concoction. In Death Becomes Her she’s Hollywood star Madeline Ashton, who avoids getting lost in the midst of Robert Zemeckis’ teeming metaphysical dark comedy about mortality by being larger-than-life, by unleashing emotions and insecurities and punch lines on the same demented scale as the special-effect buffoonery (“wrinkle wrinkle little star, hope they never see the scars”).
Leave it to Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody to persuade Streep to produce her most likable performance in years. Ricki (formerly Linda) left her family in Indianapolis years ago to pursue her dreams of being a rock star; when she hears that her daughter has attempted suicide she flies back to help.
It’s a nice little setup, a multiple-vehicle collision between husband and wife, upper class and lower, West Coast and Midwest, liberal and conservative, with clever combinations along the way (husband Pete [Kevin Kline] is a wealthy liberal who hides his high-quality pot in the freezer while Ricki is a blue-collar Republican).
Demme and Cody don’t quite follow up — the film ends (skip to the next paragraph if you plan to watch) as most classic Hollywood films do, in a wedding; there is at most a bittersweet tang to the final images, all that’s left of the collision promised at the beginning, deftly circumscribed along the way. In its way it’s a reprise of Demme’s far better Rachel Getting Married, only with all the bitter feuds more or less settled, the relationships largely repaired, the primacy of parents and preciousness of offsprings properly asserted. It’s as if Rachel left such a bad taste in Demme’s mouth (but why, when the film’s so good?) he wanted to do it all again, only happier.
Which somehow doesn’t matter all that much. If we see it as less a serious drama and more an excuse for Demme to put one of America’s most respected actress onstage, doing what she’s really meant to do — be funny and sing — then what more need we ask? Streep gives it her all, the drying skin and age lines showing, the dark mascara deliberately caked round the eyes. She’s a wonderful agent for chaos shaking up Pete’s quietly tasteful somewhat lifeless family; and when the scene threatens to roll over and die she cuts loose with her raucous laugh and we’re all alert and listening again.
She’s not operating in a vacuum; Demme’s too deft a hand at casting to allow her to hang on by herself. He’s picked Kline (like the superb Bill Irwin in Rachel) as the comic actor turned straight man, furtively sneaking in fun line readings under an otherwise solemn demeanor; Rick Springsteen (I know!) as Ricki’s improbably sweet, impossibly loyal rock band boyfriend; and Streep’s own real-life daughter Mamie Gummer, superb as Ricki’s spiky-vulnerable on-screen daughter Julie.
Demme is good at ensemble casting, at directing individual performances, at creating little moments between two excellent actors (the scene where Ricki and Pete shares Pete’s secret stash is a minor comic gem), but arguably the best excuse for this movie is to have Demme shooting a musical number again. His camera glides to the left and right; cuts unobtrusively to either emphasize the beat, or emphasize a moment; knows when to go to long shot and take in the whole room’s reaction to a particularly strong number. He allows the songs themselves and the feelings they represent to shine through, all the while shining especially bright thanks to his graceful near-invisible filmmaking. Does the film have any urgent reason for being? Not really; still grateful it’s here, would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
MTRCB Rating: PG