There are a few things I just don’t buy in film. One is the Movie Star as Musician.
Whether it’s Al Pacino in Danny Collins, Gwyneth Paltrow in Country Strong, Keira Knightley in Begin Again or Colin Farrell in Crazy Heart it’s cringe-ho! There are exceptions of course: Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies being just two, and Almost Famous gets a pass because it’s Almost Famous (oddly this bias – and it is a bias – doesn’t extend to biopics with Jamie Foxx and Joaquin Phoenix excelling in Ray and Walk The Line respectively). In this light drama the imperial Meryl sadly falls into the former category.
She plays Ricki, a broke sixty-year-old checkout girl forced to take orders from floor managers in their twenties. She makes ends meet as the frontwoman in LA bar band The Flash (boasting Rick Springfield on lead guitar and Bernie Worrell on keyboards) working through those Rock hits that Middle America love so much (Tom Petty and, eh, Pink).
Thankfully, director Jonathan Demme keeps the drama off stage: after only a couple of short numbers, ex-husband Kevin Kline, a prominent businessman, is on the blower asking her to fly to Indianapolis to console daughter Julie (a terrific Gummer) when her husband leaves her for another woman. Ricki hasn’t been the typical mom, leaving when her three children when were very young - she even missed Julie’s wedding – and takes the opportunity to make amends…
Ricki and the Flash initially makes good on this decent if familiar set up. The dialogue is sharp and cutting and loaded, and Streep, Kline and Gummer enjoy a great dynamic that just keeps piling new elements on top of each other. There’s Kline who may still have feelings for her, there’s the suicidal Gummer, there’s son Josh (Sebastian Stan) who is engaged and hasn’t invited Ricki to the wedding, and there’s the acerbic Adam (Nick Westrate), the older son who is gay and enjoys rubbing Ricki’s face in it… despite Ricki not caring one way or the other. Then there’s Kline’s new wife Maureen (McDonald), who arrives home to make sure Ricki knows her place. The stage is set for a right ding dong.
But then writer Diablo Cody takes a head stagger and Ricki and the Flash falls off the side of the stage. Instead of keeping Ricki in the house with all this tension and baggage, Cody has her move back to LA where she reconciles with on again-off again partner Springfield. They rekindle their love for music and each other. Then she receives a letter of apology from Maureen. All’s good and well.
Sorry, but this isn’t the story. The story is back in Indianapolis with that hotbed of tension. To up sticks like this is a bizarre decision from the Juno and Young Adult writer and one which Ricki… never recovers: from here on out everyone is nice to each other. Nice. When did good drama stem from people being kind to each other all the time?
But the worst sin is putting Meryl back on stage for extended periods and have her ‘rock out’. She patrols the stage with her rhythm guitar and – God – makes her way down into the audience (of seven - including bar staff) to enjoy a drink between licks. Cringe-ho!