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story.lead_photo.caption Greg (Rick Springfield) and Ricki (Meryl Streep) keep faith with their rock ’n’ roll lifestyles in Ricki and the Flash, from director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody.

As a truly objective film critic, something nearly impossible to achieve but that we all strive to be, you have to train yourself to disavow warning signs before you see a film, even if they appear to be blatantly obvious. A Civil War film starring Steven Segal? Sounds intriguing. A tragic love story directed by Brett Ratner? Better bring some Kleenex. Anything with John Travolta involved? Um ... OK.

Julie (Mamie Gummer) re-connects with the mother who abandoned her family years ago, Ricki (Meryl Streep, Gummer’s real-life mother), in Jonathan Demme’s dysfunctional family comedy Ricki and the Flash.

But you'd have to be clinically dead not to at least notice the blaring warning signs on this one. Start with the truly dreadful title, which sounds like an abysmal Saturday morning cartoon show from the '70s. Go beyond that and you have the story of an aging rock 'n' roller forced to reunite with her estranged family after several decades in order to help her wounded daughter heal from a terrible relationship. Yikes. On the plus side, the film does boast a truly gifted director in Jonathan Demme, and a cast featuring none other than Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, two proud professionals who -- yes, It's Complicated aside -- generally do quality work in high-level productions.

Ricki and the Flash

81 Cast: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Ben Platt, Charlotte Rae, Audra McDonald

Director: Jonathan Demme

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

Running time: 102 minutes

Unfortunately, in this particular case, you would do well to heed the abundant warning signs. Largely aimless and sketchy -- minus the many, many musical performances, the film feels as if it wouldn't crack 60 minutes -- Diablo Cody's script is riddled with incongruences and poor execution. Even an actress as commanding as Streep can only go so far to bail out a construction this jury-rigged and unsteady.

Streep plays Ricki Rezano, nee Linda Brummel, a dipsy rock 'n' roll lifer draped in black leather, heavy eyeliner and hair braids, who plays with her aging back-up band at a local watering hole in Tarzana, Calif. She's got a modicum of talent -- fortunately, this is no Georgia in that particular sense -- but a very limited range, and playing rock standards (the film opens with the band playing "American Girl") in front of a small crowd of drunken locals seems about her speed. She has a thing going with the genial lead guitarist, Greg (Rick Springfield), works a day job as a cashier at a local grocery, and more or less has built a decent, if hard-scrabble, life for herself.

But when she hears from her ex-husband, Pete (Kline), that their daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep's daughter) is staying with him at his palatial mansion in Indianapolis because of her suddenly failed marriage, Ricki drops everything, jumps on a plane and tries to help. This gets tricky, because, it turns out, she simply walked out on Pete and the kids a couple of decades ago to pursue her rock 'n' roll dream in L.A., a fact that everyone in the family still hugely resents. A disastrous family dinner ensues, with Julie and her two brothers (Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate), lashing out at Ricki, as Pete looks on helplessly, still trying to celebrate their grand reunion.

Eventually, by the time Pete's new wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), returns from visiting her sick father, a woman as together and loving as Ricki was selfish and egocentric, things rapidly fall apart. Ricki is forced to leave in shame, even though she actually did help her daughter get back on her feet and out of her ratty pajamas. She retreats to her former life, and seemingly moves past her family ties, until an unexpected invitation arrives, pulling her fretfully back in.

Sometimes it's hard to put your finger on what makes an earnest film fail, but in this case the answer is powerfully, painfully obvious: Ricki, for all of Streep's legendary thespian infusing, never becomes an actual character. She's a poorly drawn archetype that, frankly, feels completely incongruent with the supposed family and life she left behind. You might have been able to get away with her as a distant relative, but meeting her kind, perfectly composed, workaholic ex-husband, and their well-heeled, well-adjusted children, there's simply no connection there to make. You can't imagine the circumstances in which Pete would have fallen for such a woman, nor how she could ever have thrown herself into this sort of staid lifestyle. The principals feel as if they come from radically different films altogether, like one of those '80s music videos where wacky characters suddenly cross through the sets of different cable channel shows, appearing in nature documentaries, idiotic sit-coms, and hospital dramas out of nowhere and to no purpose.

And therein lies the true rub: Since we can't possibly buy into Ricki's family connections, with Cody's script limping along meanderingly, the film doesn't have much else to offer. It seems to acknowledge as much, with its aforementioned penchant for musical numbers -- seriously, I swear I've seen concert films with fewer long takes of complete songs -- serving the purpose of giving the actors something to do other than stand around feeling unnecessary.

It's not hard to imagine the appeal the film might have had to Streep -- a chance to work with her daughter and play out a rock fantasy on stage -- but far less so with Demme, whose recent feature output has been maddeningly intermittent. Cody, the writer of Juno, among other things, has some talent, but this barely feels like a first draft, a scatty, thrown-together thing that doesn't bother to solve even its most obvious and glaring flaws.

When all else fails, it has Ricki jumping on stage again and again, redemption through a series of dive bar band covers and Streep's crouched-legged axe posings. We're meant to believe that her rock 'n' roll fantasies were actually justified, that she was simply an artist whose need for fulfillment led her away from her familial duties, that she was born to Rawk, as it were. The sad thing is, watching her preen with her guitar and make out onstage with her "younger" boyfriend, you can't help but feel as if her children were far better off without her.

MovieStyle on 08/07/2015

Print Headline: Ricki and the first draft


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