No matter what you think of Jonathan Demme as a filmmaker - and I tend to generally enjoy his music documentary work much better than his narrative films - one constant throughout his career has been the generosity he shows towards his characters, the space he allows them to find and explore around them to exist as people outside any boxes you'd want to fit them in.
That's probably the best thing you can say about the reasonably lukewarm but not uninteresting Ricki and the Flash, a film entirely predicated on individuality and respect for the other, on being your own person and chasing your own truth, stifled under a half-baked collection of family-drama clichés. While these are themes that have always underlined as well the work of screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), they're given a somewhat perfunctory gloss in a strongly unbalanced script, an effective "game of two halves" that don't necessarily coalesce as they should.
The theme of a woman realising she's not getting her lost time back and deciding to deal with it is stronger on the second part, which turns out to be a bit too much of a less edgy take on Mr. Demme's previous Rachel Getting Married. The first half, on the other hand, suggests a middle-aged comedy of almost-remarriage, as never-was rock singer Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) returns home to Indianapolis to help her daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Ms. Streep's actual daughter) overcome a traumatic separation, and reacquaints herself with her since remarried ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline in bumbling auto-pilot). It's all the more disappointing that both halves don't really gel as much, doubly so because with this cast it wouldn't take much to get the movie going - as shown by the remarkably performed and shot stand-off between Ricki and Pete's current wife Maureen (Audra McDonald), spine-tingling in the adroit management of its tension and territory.
At its heart, Ricki and the Flash is really about broken families that never got over their original rift. Ricki left behind a husband and three young children for the dream of rock stardom, and when that didn't pan out she stayed in California, eking out a living at odd jobs while performing with a workaday band at an Orange County roadhouse; the only family she now has is her band, but she will not commit to the open advances of her guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield) for fear of spoiling things again. Back home, though, Pete may have regrouped and got the family going as normal as possible, but everyone still resents Ricki for having gone off with no thoughts for them, and for all we know Julie may be just repeating the pattern, especially since her brother is himself engaged to be married very soon.
Interestingly enough, the film also works in a neat little inversion of the stereotypes it trafficks in: Ricki, the California dissolute full of tattoos and piercings, turns out to be a Bush-voting blue-collar rocker still believing in the healing power of rock and roll, while it's the Indianapolis liberals she married into that end up having more of a haughty prejudice against those unlike them. But even though there could be something interesting in this shuffling of ideas of respectability and rebellion, this acceptance that America's current social and political polarization doesn't take account reality, Ricki and the Flash settles into a mild and entirely predictable life-lessons comedy-drama, much enlivened by Mr. Demme's deft hand with actors and the energy both he and the cast bring to the stage scenes.
Ms. Streep as a blue collar rockin' mama (doing her own singing and playing her own guitar) may be a piece of stunt casting. But the actress gives such a rounded, heartfelt performance, expertly shifting between bravado and vulnerability, that it never comes off as "Meryl does rock". And Ms. Gummer more than holds her own, though, as with much of the supporting roles, there isn't as much there for her as there is for the film's star to do.
Ricki and the Flash could have been a lot more trenchant and have a lot more to say about contemporary America than it turns out to; it may be entirely representative of the way counter-culture has been gradually assimilated by the mainstream and turned into a staid archetype of Americana - old rebels always become the epitome of conservatism - but ultimately the film accepts this status quo without much questioning. Mr. Demme fine-tunes his compassionate approach to his characters, and hands the stage to Ms. Streep without further ado, but there's really not much more to say about this perfectly civilized but under-achieving entertainment.
RICKI AND THE FLASH
Cast Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt, Rick Springfield
Director Jonathan Demme; screenwriter Diablo Cody; cinematographer Declan Quinn (widescreen); designer Stuart Wurtzel; costues Ann Roth; editor Wyatt Smith; producers Marc Platt, Gary Goetzman, Ms. Cody and Mason Novick, Tristar Pictures, Marc Platt Productions and Badwill Entertainment in association with Lstar Capital
Screened August 5th 2015, Teatro Kursaal, Locarno, festival press screening