Mark Reviews Movies

Ricki and the Flash


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jonathan Demme

Cast: Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt, Audra McDonald, Nick Westrate

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, brief drug content, sexuality and language)

Running Time: 1:42

Release Date: 8/7/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 6, 2015

There isn't much meat to the story and characters of Ricki and the Flash, and it's a little annoying how the movie attempts to compensate for that. There's plenty of drama here, or at least there's the potential for actual drama behind all the shouting sessions and snarky retorts. The story is a familiar one: A character who has chosen to chase a dream over being part of a family must confront the fact that the family isn't too happy with that choice and must try to make amends for years of neglect. The semi-twist of this particular story is that Ricki (Meryl Streep) moved to California to become a musician but that fame eluded her. She has the ego of a rock superstar, but she works at a grocery store to make ends meet.

Even the gigs can't be that financially or artistically rewarding. She and her band the Flash play at the same dive bar over and over again. There's a regular crowd, but there are also a lot of empty seats. The set list is a selection of classic rock standards from the 1970s and '80s, although the band has started to cover some more recent pop favorites as a way to bring the younger patrons to the dance floor.

Ricki clearly realizes that any shot she could have had at fame has bypassed her. She's definitely not happy, and it wouldn't be accurate to say she's content. She has accepted this as her lot in life—to lead a cover band with a small following by night and to work as a way to barely pay her bills by day. Hers is a static existence, and she seems to be working pretty hard to ensure that the way things are doesn't change.

Of course, the usual path of this story would see Ricki learn that things must change, and for that to happen, she must adapt in some way. She must see the error of her past and current ways.

What's strange is that the central question of Diablo Cody's screenplay is whether or not the people whom Ricki has abandoned or keeps at a distance can accept her for the person she is. Ricki does change a little bit, although most of that change comes from the notion that she becomes more willing to put herself into situations in which people will get to decide if they want her to stick around. She opens herself up for the possibility of rejection, because that's the only way to figure out if there's the possibility of acceptance.

In other words, the answer to the movie's dramatic question has little to do with Ricki's choices. The responsibility of determining her fate rests upon everyone else. After years of mutual silence, Ricki might start talking to her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep's eldest daughter). She might decide to make her relationship with the band's lead guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield) official. She might put on a nice dress to fit in a little better with the hoity-toity crowd at a social gathering. Through all of those choices, though, she remains the same Ricki—the woman who doesn't much concern herself with what other people think of her, as long she can keep doing what she does.

In a way, this is a bit more honest than that usual path of this story, because, as much as we hate to admit it, people typically don't make drastic changes to their personality and/or behavior after decades of living a certain way. Ricki's little steps toward a different life feel genuine. That, though, puts a lot of dramatic weight on the other characters in order to make Ricki's baby-step journey actually go somewhere.

Ricki returns to Indianapolis to stay with her family after Julie attempts suicide following a difficult divorce. Everyone—from her daughter to her two sons (Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate) to Pete's second wife Maureen (Audra McDonald)—is either suspicious of or openly antagonistic toward her (save for Pete, who takes pity on his old flame). A lot of insults are bandied between them, and domestic squabbles are conducted with raised voices, oftentimes in public places. It's as if Cody and director Jonathan Demme don't trust the familial drama to stand on its own, so we're constantly made aware of the sense of public embarrassment as a roomful of WASPs are made uncomfortable by the display of animosity.

It all comes across as rather contrived. The other characters change their minds about Ricki without much or any prompting from her, since, of course, part of the point of is that Ricki shouldn't need to change in order to be accepted (She has a big speech about the difference in social expectations for men and women when it comes to children, although the conclusion is sort of negated by Greg's situation with his own kids). It's her against the world, and it's up to the rest of the world to change to accommodate her. Ricki and the Flash expects us to buy that foolishly naïve outlook, but the movie's sales pitch is far too weak.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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