To be honest, Jonathan Demme’s “Ricki and The Flash” sounds supremely bland on paper and looked even worse in the trailers. Meryl Streep plays Linda Brummel aka Ricki, who years ago abandoned her family to pursue being a rock musician in L.A. Now she’s Total Foods cashier by day and lead singer of amateur rock band The Flash by night. She’s told by her ex husband Pete (Kevin Kline) that their daughter Julie (a feisty Mamie Gummer) was left by her husband. So she hops on a plane to Indiana to reconnect with her estranged family. It all sounds cliché (and it is) but the movie excels in its execution— primarily through atmosphere as well as script and acting.
Demme taps into that universal feeling of awkwardness we sometimes experience during tense, heated confrontations. We’ve all been in those situations where an argument between friends or family members breaks out and we’re stuck in the room longer than we want to be. This is achieved by stretching out the confrontations and taking more time than necessary to show the facial expressions of characters as they react to what’s going on around them.
When Ricki and Pete go to dinner with Julie and their two other kids and an argument breaks out, Demme goes around the table showing everyone’s facial expressions as they react to mean words being traded, emphasizing the tense atmosphere. In another scene, Ricki and Julie have just finished arguing and Julie has stormed off to her room in anger. At this moment another director might have just cut immediately to the next scene but instead he keeps the camera on Ricki and Pete for a few more seconds, as they stand there quietly, with awkward looks, unsure of what do to next. Demme isn’t in a hurry to tell his story and often times the facial expressions reveal more about a character than their dialogue.
These prolonged moments peppered throughout scenes add a layer of authenticity to the derivative material in “Ricki and The Flash.” Just like Robert Altman used overlapping audio to evoke the mood and energy of a scene, Demme uses reaction shots. For example, when Ricki arrives at her oldest son’s wedding (sticking out like a sore thumb) the camera lingers on the random guests and their looks of disgust and contempt. During Ricki and The Flash live shows Demme shows the faces of the various audience members as they smile and nod along to the performance. Demme makes communal spaces like these come alive; they’re not just two dimensional sets for the primary actors to stand and perform in front of but living breathing environments.
It also helps that “Ricki and The Flash” has an energetic script by Diablo Cody (“Young Adult,” “Juno”) full of sharp, acid tongued dialogue. Anytime the movie starts to slip into melodramatic territory, a character will interject with a hilariously awkward out of left field stinger. Cody’s script achieves a near perfect balance of comedy and drama; the movie deals with some rather heavy subjects (abandonment, attempted suicide, etc.) but the humor keeps it from being relentlessly dour. At the same time, the comedy never undercuts the dramatic impact or betrays the connections between characters.
Not surprisingly, the acting is top notch. Streep once again proves she’s one of the best working actors, giving a loopy, giggly and compassionate performance as Ricki—a sixty six year old rocker with the spirit and etiquette of a twenty year old. She doesn’t fit in with the conventionality and refinement of suburban Indiana; Staying at Pete’s clean, modern mansion she’s flabbergasted by the vastness of the kitchen and the almost pool sized bathtub. This “fish out water” stuff works much better than it should, mostly due to Streep. And she makes for a convincing rocker; seeing the joy and enthusiasm she has while performing makes you at least partially understand why she gave up her former Midwestern life.
Kline is also strong as the stiff, mild mannered Pete who’s always trying to diffuse the tense familial situations (I’d say his performance alone is fifty percent facial reactions) and musician Rick Springfield gives a tender performance as Ricki’s supportive band member/boyfriend Greg.
In the end, “Ricki and The Flash” is light and familiar; the story doesn’t yield any major surprises and Cody’s script could definitely cut deeper. Additionally, the ending enters into hokey territory. But I was OK with of all of this. Demme and the actors come together and create such a genuine, entertaining filmic environment that a little silliness and cliché is deserved. “Ricki and The Flash” is no doubt the biggest surprise of the year so far.