Monday, August 17, 2015

Ricki and the Flash

Meryl Streep has, in short, done it again. She has used her incredible talent, and the incredible talents of those who are drawn to work with her, to illuminate an otherwise lackluster movie. The plot is simple, the characters are crudely drawn, the philosophical and emotional points are never subtle. But because of the cast, you can't help but be drawn into this painful family drama, and eventually to rejoice at the reconciliation.

The plot is very much as it appears in the trailers, though with one twist in the middle to get us from Act I to Act II. Ricki Rondazzo, nee Linda Brummel, is a down-and-out rock singer who fronts the house band of a little dive outside LA. We soon learn that she left her family years ago to chase her dream of stardom, a dream that turned to ashes. Now her daughter's husband has left her, so she flies home to be with her. Family tensions galore erupt, including the revelation that Linda's son is getting married and chose not to tell his mother. Act II is that wedding, where Ricki/Linda has to find a way to reconcile with her kids, or lose them forever.

It is no secret that actors in Hollywood will jump at the chance to work with Streep. (That's how Pierce Brosnan, who can't sing, ended up as the lead in a musical.) In this case we see Rick Springfield as her bandmate/boyfriend(?), Kevin Kline as her ex-husband, Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep's actual daughter) as the daughter, Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate as the sons, and Audra McDonald as the second wife/mother. Each of them absolutely kills their part, not only infusing the lines of dialogue with emotion, but expressing inner turmoil in every line of their bodies.

Ricki is herself not a particularly likable or admirable character. She is not particularly bright. She is certainly not stable. She has issues both expressing and repressing her emotions. Streep depicts her as a woman incapable of reconciling her inner world with the outer world, except through the medium of music. There will be people who identify very closely with her, but more in a sense of shared frustrations than as any sort of role model.

The family interactions are all stiff, awkward, and borderline incoherent. But they are so in exactly the way actual family drama is. No one's family is witty and composed in the midst of a crisis. This lends the entire film a sense that you are actually in the living room, watching these scenes unfold. At times, it was viscerally discomfiting. I have been in the room for family squabbles of this nature, and it is never pleasant. Even the reconciliation scenes are realistically uncomfortable. Josh (Stan) gives a very clear "It's my mom, what do you want me to do about her?" attitude. Adam (Westrate) gives the classic "God, she is so unbelievable" and his date responds, "Well, I like her, so there". Julie (Gummer) is trapped between hating the mother who abandoned her and loving the mother that she is so similar to, and you never know which way she's going to jump.

The important lesson of the movie is that no one gets a big, happy kumbaya moment. Even the reconciliation is clearly a truce, and only the first step to actual forgiveness. But in this crazy world we are all broken in our own ways. It's not important to be perfect. It's not important to be forgiven. It's only important to be true to be yourself, and to accept those that you love on their own terms.

Of course, the peculiar secondary lesson of the movie is that rich, white people categorically suck. And I'm not even kidding. Ricki has a day job as a cashier at a Whole Total Foods, where she's forced to suck up to the customers. Her husband Pete (Kline) is super successful, which has put the family in a social strata that is also super pretentious. Sometimes the movie even hangs a lampshade right on it, such as Maureen (McDonald) complaining about going to a mother-daughter tea at Julie's "painfully white sorority". I was even caught up in looking at the things at the wedding, which for me rode that borderline between "Hey, that sounds like a cool idea" and "OMG, did they really?" (because I'm middle class white, so a lot of rich white stuff appeals to me). The movie was not in any way subtle about pointing to a WIDE variety of things as pretentious, or indulgent, or mired in needless consumerism. And yet, weirdly, Ricki also did not come in as some avenging angel of simplicity and "keeping it real". She does a lot of staring around with amazement, but doesn't seem to really have a better alternative.

You would think that a movie that is all about one woman's struggle with herself would be staunchly feminist. And by certain criteria, it might be. But by other criteria, it's really not. The Bechdel Test typically invalidates any conversation about a man as being irrelevant. If you similarly invalidate any conversation that is about the woman's role as mother (given that motherhood is as much a cliched role for women as being a love interest), this movie very nearly fails. Most of the interesting conversations are between Ricki and one of the male leads. Her one scene with Maureen is entirely about their competing roles as mother to the children. Most of her scenes with Julie are either about Julie's divorce or Ricki's failure as a mother. But I do believe that there is just enough discussion of Julie's therapy and medication to pass the Bechdel Test. The Mako Mori Test is similarly compromised. Ricki's entire character arc is defined by either her relationship to her children or her relationship to her boyfriend Greg (Springfield). Julie's entire character arc is defined by either her relationship to her mother or her relationship to her ex-husband. Maureen doesn't even get a character arc. And to top it off, Ricki doesn't manage to save herself. She is saved by, of course, the love of a good man. There are a lot of great moments in this movie for women to connect to and talk about. But, as with Ricki's character herself, it is more in sympathy for how screwed up expectations about women can be than any actual inspiration to be better.

Should you see it? That's a tricky question. It's not a movie for everyone. If you have a complicated relationship with your mother, or are a mother with a complicated relationship with your kids, then I definitely think you should see it. The rawness and reality of it will strike home. Of course, if your relationship is really complicated, the rawness might be too much for you. If you are looking for a feel good movie, this is right out. If you are looking for delicacy or fairness, it's also right out. But if you want a moving experience of a family at least as screwed up as your own, in which no one is right but no one is really wrong, and everyone can find a way to love each other if even they can't like each other, then go see this movie.

Or, you know, if you like Rick Springfield. Because damn, he's still got it.

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