Meryl Streep, Diablo Cody, and Jonathan Demme seem like a threesome made in heaven. It gets even more appealing when you hear Streep would be playing a struggling rockstar, which would bring her out of the Prestige Character zone she’s been stuck in lately and into the light dramedy territory she is so wonderful in. Ricki and the Flash is no exception in that regard -Streep is quite wonderful- but this one of those cases in which a great performance is trapped in an inferior movie.
Cody, whose fame came with critiques of her use of over-stylized dialogue, is nevertheless one of the most empathetic screenwriters working today. For all of its quirks, Juno treats its characters beautifully. Perhaps even more impressive is the balance of unflinching examination and sympathy in Young Adult. So it comes as a big letdown that Ricki and the Flash doesn’t quite stand up to the quality of those other screenplays.
Cody does go well in creating the character of Ricki. One gets the sense that she has thought really hard about the inner workings of the character’s mind and her personal history. Thanks to Streep’s performance, anchored in a deliciously raspy voice and aided by the actor’s ability to find backstory in every line of dialogue, Ricki is not only a good performance, but an endearing and memorable character. The problem in Ricki and the Flash is not Ricki, but the world around her.
This movie seems to suffer from what Tyler Smith calls “Erin Brockovich syndrome”. Even though I don’t fully agree that Erin Brockovich suffers from this particular ailment, the “syndrome” refers to when a movie (and the supporting cast in particular) decide to give over to the lead character and surrender any kind of scrutiny as if they knew they are the protagonist of the movie, which makes the movie itself seem manufactures and phony.
In the case of Ricki and the Flash, this seems to be a sympathy for Ricki and the people she cares about over the other characters in the movie. The people that dare to criticize Ricki are either put down by the screenplay, or later reveal themselves to be understanding of her situation and bigger supporters than they are critics. Despite being built around the main character experiencing a crisis of consciousness (as Ricki must go back to Indiana after her daughter’s divorce leaves her severely depressed), the movie is unwilling to question the character.
Meanwhile, Demme -who seemed like a perfect choice based on his experience with concert movies alone- has an incredibly hard time nailing down the rhythm of Cody’s dialogue. I appreciate his framing scenes in ways that are unusual for contemporary studio cinema, but something is definitely off in the movie’s editing, which gives it a weird pacing that drains the comedy out of Cody’s screenplay -which is only mildly funny to begin with.
Ninety minutes of “you go, Ricki!” can be a little repetitive, especially when the screenplay goes exactly to the places you would expect it to go, and yet, Ricki and the Flash is worth watching for anyone who has been craving for a truly great Streep performance. The raw emotion Streep shows in her musical performances here is pure gold, especially after the Into the Woods debacle, which disappointedly took all emotional resonance from her character’s signature “Stay with Me”.
Grade: 6 out of 10