Jonathan Demme’s “Ricki and the Flash” is one of those near-misses that feels as though a lot of discussion went into the rationale behind every wrong-headed decision.
No doubt Demme (and screenwriter Diablo Cody) can explain why a failed singer playing in a bar band is someone we should root for. Ricki Randazzo (real name: Linda Brummel) is “in residence” at a dispiriting club on the farthest outskirts of actual show business in L.A. By day, she’s a check-out clerk at a high-end grocery store; by night, she’s singing Springsteen and Seger with a band that is competent in that just-falls-short way of the eternal lounge act.
Ricki isn’t Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart” because she never was a star. Her actual story begins to be teased out when she gets a call from her ex-husband, Pete Brummel (Kevin Kline), who still lives in Indianapolis, Ricki/Linda’s place of origin. Linda’s estranged daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) is having something of a breakdown, because her husband has left her for someone else. Only a mother’s words — even a mother who hightailed out of Indiana to make it as a singer in California — can mend her broken heart.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that Meryl Streep makes this character as beguilingly ornery as she can, there’s little in Cody’s script that makes us believe that any of the people she left behind want her back in their lives. Pete is obviously acting on instinct; Cody, on the other hand, has stacked the deck against Ricki, daring her to dig her way out of a narcissistic hole. It’s hard to believe any of these people ever felt connected to this woman, let alone harbor deep resentments for past crimes.
The script is thin to the point of being insubstantial. Ricki isn’t much on introspection, so we are meant to believe that she’s really only her truest, best self when she’s banging out cover tunes for a sloshed (and tiny) bar-room audience. The magic is in the music; the music is her soul. Blah blah blah.
This isn’t a long film, but it slows to a crawl every time Demme ceases forward motion to let Ricki and the Flash have their way with a song by Pink or Tom Petty or U2. It doesn’t matter that she’s got a pretty good group, including Rick Springfield (as guitarist and lead romantic interest in an underwritten part), Bernie Worrell and other actual rockers. The songs are meant to reveal character but Ricki is too much in denial about who and what she is to ever be so on-the-nose with her musical self-exploration.
Still, thanks to the skill of a cast that includes Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate (as her sons) and a script that gives Streep and Gummer some intense mother-daughter moments that allow both to shine, “Ricki and the Flash” isn’t terrible, just disappointing. Demme wants that jagged, breathless, desperate energy that he achieved in “Rachel Getting Married,” but Cody’s script is too weak to get him there.
Music heals but, in “Ricki and the Flash,” it is expected to have magical powers, including the ability to patch over gaping holes in the script. No such luck, I’m afraid.