Monday, 28 September 2015

Movie Review: Ricki And The Flash (2015)

One of the big benefits that’s come out of me looking ever so slightly more in-depth into films than I used to is that I’ve started taking more notice about the names of directors. Now, in a way, this is a good thing: Recognize a director from a beloved film at the helm of something new, you have a semi-solid reasoning for liking this one; this is why I’m so hyped about the upcoming release of Crimson Peak. However, this is assuming that every film a given director makes is exactly the same. As much as Tim Burton gets flack for his overused visual styles, you’re still going to have a hard time convincing me that Ed Wood, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Batman are pretty much the same movie based on that logic. Hell, one of the reasons why I’ve praised Steven Soderbergh so much in the past is mainly because of how varied his filmography is. All good directors are capable of crap and vice versa, and more so capable of stepping outside of what we initially perceive to be their comfort zone. As such, let’s look at today’s film: A comedic drama about an aging rock star that’s directed by Jonathon Demme, a man best known for making the film that introduced Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal to the world. Decades ago or not, that’s not exactly something that’s easily forgotten. This is Ricki And The Flash.

The plot: Ricki (Meryl Streep), many years earlier, left her family for the sake of starting a career as a rock star. However, when her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) calls for Ricki after their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) falls into depression after losing her own husband, she tries to get back into her family’s lives and help her daughter after so long. Unfortunately, animosity between Ricki, Pete and their children may prove to be too much for any of them to handle.

As much as commending Meryl Streep for her acting chops is itself a cliché at this point, I bring up her and most of the cast’s efficiency here because they don’t exactly have the best script to work with. Ricki as a character exists in a morally grey area, considering the character that abandons their family for their own creative interests is rarely treated in any sympathetic way, and Meryl does admirably to give her enough pathos to make it work despite the rather inconsistent writing. Credit is also due to Mamie Gummer, who not only has great chemistry with Meryl (No duh, honestly, since she is her real-life daughter) but her deadpan delivery manages to wring some laughs out of snarking at the family dysfunction happening around her. While the rest of the cast do well, but not exactly sticking out in memory, the only other highlight of note would be Rick Springfield, Mr. Jessie’s Girl himself, as Ricki’s boyfriend and bandmate Greg. Now, admittedly, most of his ‘acting’ amounts to him rocking out with the band, which is fine, but he does get one big ‘emotional’ scene in the film. Said scene honestly works really well and ends up helping redeem Ricki’s character by film’s end. It’s one of the few times when the drama actually hits home so, given how confused the focus is for this film, it’s easy to see where it should have been devoted.

Writer Diablo Cody, I am firmly convinced now, got lucky twice during the course of her career and probably never will be again. She made a big splash with Juno’s hipster-quirk and even managed to sell the idea of Toni Collette having multiple personalities with United States Of Tara. However, between the mangled whatever-that-was of Jennifer’s Body and uncredited and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to revise the scripts for Burlesque and Evil Dead, I think the well is tapped on that front. This film doesn’t really change that assumption, considering it doesn’t even seem clear what exactly the point of it all is. We get a lot of possibilities for story: General dysfunctional amongst the family, conflict between her and her daughter while also helping to recover from her break-up, her struggles with the band and their financial issues. A better writer would have been able to juggle all of these elements to create the story, whereas most of these threads are either left hanging or given kind of lame resolutions. Julie’s depression, something that takes up the majority of the film’s trailers, takes up about half of the film if even that much and ends up just being dropped off the face of the earth. All we get is a frankly confusing scene at her brother’s wedding, one that could only make sense if there was an earlier draft where it was supposed to be her wedding. To say nothing of the dialogue, which is about as trite as can be expected from this kind of middle-of-the-road generi-drama. It’s full of wishy-washy emotional moments that are purposely scattershot to try and blindly appeal to as much of the audience as possible, coupled with as many quote-unquote 'edgy' moments as its rating will allow. And by ‘edgy’, I mean weirdly disjointed moments like Julie off-handedly calling something ‘gay’ as an insult, which kind of cripples the attempts at reconciliation between Ricki and her gay son out of not knowing how seriously the film is taking it. It doesn’t help that the film makes it a point of addressing how he and his many gay friends aren’t allowed to marry; you haven’t known awkward until you’ve sat through that exchange considering recent events concerning that topic.

The soundtrack, as performed by the titular band, is comprised solely of covers. While I would argue that a few more original songs would have been nice, considering not only is there an in-universe album that Ricki made but also an original acoustic number as well, but then I would be discrediting the admirable song selection. The film opens on American Girl, a sort of introductory song for Ricki (that also seriously doesn’t help when trying to disassociate this film with Silence Of The Lambs), then the band go on to create musical signposts like Keep Playing That Rock & Roll when Ricki returns to the band after leaving her family (and Julie’s depression is neatly unresolved), Drift Away when her boyfriend pays for her ticket back to attend his son’s wedding, and My Love Will Not Let You Down as a capper for the film and a semi act of redemption for Ricki, as well as the original song Cold One working as a more personal number. Sure, they don’t all work in this fashion (Brownie points if you can figure out how ‘Woolly Bully’ fits into all this) but it shows that effort was made which is essential when making a jukebox musical. Or, at least, I think that’s what Demme and Cody were going for amidst everything else.

All in all, while I freely admit that this film probably wasn’t made with my demographic in mind, considering the oldie rock soundtrack and everything, this still feels very messy in terms of the writing. The music is good and mostly well used and the acting manages to rise above the script, but it just doesn’t know how to proceed with the plots and subplots it has been given, not to mention having some pretty wonky characterization to boot. It’s better than The Man From U.N.C.L.E., because this doesn’t have nearly as much wrong with the production itself; here, it’s mostly confined to the writing. However, in terms of connecting the audience to the music and the musician playing it, Love & Mercy honestly did a bit better than this film did. This is one of those films, much like the previously mentioned Burlesque, that exists solely for the sake of its soundtrack; if pub rock covers of 60’s rock and Bad Romance sounds appealing to you, I’d advise buying the soundtrack as opposed to a ticket for the movie.

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