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Family Dysfunction Is Set To A Melancholic Beat In 'Ricki And The Flash'


This is FRESH AIR. Meryl Streep sings on-screen in the new film "Ricki And The Flash." She's done that before, but this time she also plays guitar, belting out bar band versions of hits from the likes of Tom Petty, U2 and Bruce Springsteen. Jonathan Demme directed the film from a script by Diablo Cody. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In "Ricki And The Flash," Meryl Streep tears up the screen as Ricky Randazzo, a singer in a covers band working out of a bar in Tarzana, Calif. She wears black vinyl and chains, and her blonde hair is long with a side braid. She's loud and raucous. Her voice explodes from her chest. She's also poor and ornery. She loves George W. Bush, hates Obama and thinks gays aren't born gay but choose to live a lifestyle. Ricki is not pretending to be something she isn't, but when she takes a call from her ex-husband in Indiana about their suicidal daughter, Julie, we learn she was once upper-middle-class Linda Brummel who left Julie and two sons behind, shattered, to pursue her dream of singing. The family moved on, and Ricki/Linda kept her distance from them and any long-term commitment. The movie is about what happens when she flies to Indiana to face a different kind of music. If you can't believe the exuberantly low-brow Ricki was married to straight-laced workaholic Peter, played by Kevin Kline, or mother to kids who are ultra-liberal and eco-conscious, you might not like "Ricki And The Flash." You seriously have to suspend disbelief. The early scenes are broad. The screenwriter is Diablo Cody, of "Juno" fame, whose characters are often coarser than they need to be - anything for a laugh. The difference is, she's working with director Jonathan Demme, American cinema's most inclusive humanist. And though her judgmental dialogue doesn't always mesh with his style, the tonal seesaw ensures the film is full of surprises, wonderfully so. Ricki's family - not to put too fine a point on it - hates her, especially her gay son, Daniel, played by Ben Platt. The scenes in which she endures their anger, refusing to apologize but shaken by the intensity of their feelings, are so grim you know a kiss-and-make-up ending is unlikely. Ricki's daughter, Julie, is played by Streep's - Mamie Gummer, with limp, unwashed hair and a gray complexion. She and Streep don't fall into easy mother-daughter rhythms, even in a scene where Ricki sweeps Julie off to the beauty parlor. The movie keeps its edge. Only one scene stops the metronome. Ricki and her ex and daughter smoke marijuana. She plays a song called "Cold One."


MERYL STREEP: (As Ricki, singing) Like a cold one on a summer's day, I was a cold one to leave that way. But no one stood in my way and no one asked me to stay. I like you, you're a lot like me. Get so wound up, I can't sleep. But there's no one I'd rather be. So have a cold one on me. Takes a cold one to know one, takes a cold one to know one.

KEVIN KLINE: (As Peter) Whose song is that?

STREEP: (As Ricki) It's mine. I wrote it.

MAMIE GUMMER: (As Julie) You wrote that?

STREEP: (As Ricki) A long time ago.

EDELSTEIN: That song, written by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice, suggests the melancholy of a woman who, many years ago, was sure she had to leave. Later, she bitterly laments, before her loyal Tarzana audience, that male musicians like Mick Jagger have kids with different women, don't stick around and no one demonizes them. You don't have to admire her to concede the point.

"Ricki And The Flash" swerves near stereotypes and swerves away at every turn. Audra McDonald is Peter's second wife who shows up like a killjoy but finally makes you like her for her firmness and compassion. Musician Rick Springfield is Greg, Ricki's sometime-lover and the group's hot dog guitarist. Although he's not a trained actor, he has a dopey sweetness that makes you want to see Greg and Ricki together. The movie gels in a final sequence, the wedding of Ricki's other son. It's a typically acid Diablo Cody set up, the moneyed crowd looking with disgust on Ricki and Greg. But as Jonathan Demme showed in another wedding movie, "Rachel Getting Married," there's comfort in ritual, and especially music, which has the power to dissolve boundaries. No, it doesn't heal primal wounds. It's just a glimpse of people transcending, for a moment, their individual grief.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Coming up, we get TV critic David Bianculli's take on Jon Stewart's final appearance on "The Daily Show." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.
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