‘Ricki and the Flash’ shows reality of family struggle

by: GABRIELLA GAMBOA/Staff Writer 

In the exquisite, sweet-and-bitter comedy “Ricki and the Flash,” Meryl Streep rocks the screen as Ricki Rendazzo, a singer in a cover band, the Flash, working at a bar in Tarzana, California.

Wearing black pleather, black lace, chains, and a layer of dirty blonde hair braided and pulled back at the side, she covers all songs by Tom Petty, U2, Lady Gaga, Pink and Bruce Springsteen in a voice that’s not Grammy winning but powerful. The regulars adore her. Although she has amazing fans who support her every night, she still doesn’t make enough to quit her day job as a cashier for Whole Foods.

Ricki is definitely not pretending to be something she isn’t. But when she answers a call from her ex-husband in Indiana, it is brought out that she used to be known as upper-middle-class Linda Brummell, who left her daughter and two sons behind to pursue her dream of singing. That daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s daughter), attempted suicide after her own husband told her he wanted a divorce, hence the phone call. But how helpful Ricki/Linda can actually be is the big question. She has kept her distance from them and any other kind of long-term commitment that comes her way. “Ricki and the Flash” shows all that happens when she flies to Indiana to face a different kind of rock-n-roll.

If you can’t believe that the energetic, wild Ricki was married to suit-wearing workaholic Peter (Kevin Kline), and that her kids are extremely radical and earth friendly, you’re probably not going to like the movie. You have to get rid of the thought of disbelief and know that anything can happen.

The screenwriter is Diablo Cody (of “Juno”), whose characters are usually more vulgar and obscene than they need to be. Anything for a good laugh, right? The difference is that she’s working with director Jonathan Demme, American cinema’s all-around humanist. Though her loud and very-out-there dialogue doesn’t always mix with Demme’s easy going, more generous personality, the back-and-forth tones keep you on your toes and cause good tension.

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In a blunt, simple way, Ricki’s family hates her, and the scenes where she faces their anger, refusing to apologize but shaken by how strong their feelings become, are so harsh that you know a simple kiss-and-make-up ending is unlikely to happen. Although it’s fun to see Streep acting opposite of Gummer and Kline, there are no in-jokes. Kline plays it tidy and awkward, while Gummer, with stringy hair and a pale complexion, doesn’t fall into a mother-daughter relationship, even when Ricki gladly takes Julie off to the salon.

It’s hard in this situation to take in and understand Ricki’s decision to leave her family once again. But when she returns to that Tarzana bar and realizes that male musicians such as Mick Jagger have kids with different women and no one pushes them aside, you have to cave in and admit the point to yourself.

“Ricki and the Flash” presents stereotypes and even some surprises. Audra McDonald plays Peter’s second wife, a dramatic killjoy who makes you like her for taking care of her family when they are in need of a mom. Musician Rick Springfield is Greg, Ricki’s sometime lover and the group’s superstar guitarist: He has sometimes ditsy, outgoing and awkward sweetness that makes you want to see Greg and Ricki together.

The movie comes together in a final sequence, the wedding of Ricki’s other son. It’s a typically mean Diablo Cody setting, with the rich upper-class crowd looking with disgust toward Ricki and Greg. Demme brings forth work that not most directors do. There’s comfort in tradition, and especially music, which has the power to break down boundaries.

No, it doesn’t heal the heartache that that has been built up for so long. It just gives you a glimpse each character transforming and changing, for a moment, each one at a time. And, of course, like any other Meryl Streep movie, it sends you home singing.

I give this movie 4 out of 5 stars.

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