Ricki and the Flash: Streep can’t save disppointing drama

On screen, Meryl Streep can do just about anything. For almost 40 years she has demonstrated her ability to master accents, play musical instruments and discover the nuance of any character she plays. She is today’s best reason to go to the movies.

What Streep can’t do is magically make a weak script into something strong. While the actress can make any character come to life, and inspire belief in most situations, she can face an uphill battle when confronted with a weak screenplay. This poses a reel challenge for even the most accomplished actress.

Ricki and the Flash doesn’t work for many reasons. Yes, its premise is promising; many a baby boomer may long for the days of rock and roll while confronting family changes. The cast is first rate, adding Oscar winner Kevin Kline and Broadway legend Audra MacDonald to the mix. The director Jonathan Demme won an Academy Award for Silence of the Lambs and screenwriter Diablo Cody won an Oscar for Juno. But none of them brings their best work to the film. And the creators leave Streep on her own to create movie magic.

The film should work. The star is well cast in a made-to-order role of a rock-and-roll singer who left her family behind to pursue her dream to become a music legend. Things haven’t worked out as she planned. She spends her days working in a high-end grocery store and her evenings performing in a dive bar. And, over the years, she has become estranged from her children. This sets up a classic mother-daughter confrontation that becomes interesting to watch because the daughter on screen is played by Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter.

The problems begin with Cody’s script. This daring screenwriter, who explores the challenge of teenage pregnancy in Juno and the disappointments of superficial relationships in Young Adult, stands back this time, tossing off artificial situations and weak one-liners in place of exploring real emotions. Instead of getting under the surface of the family dynamics, Cody teases with exposition and avoids developing connections. While Streep works hard to bring the lead to life, Cody and Demme give the other cast members little to work with.

Demme shoots the material in a distant manner as if visiting from out of town rather than joining the family dynamic. While the director is no stranger to familial contention — with the strong Rachel Getting Married to his credit — his heavy-handed direction emphasizes the weaknesses in Cody’s script. The whole thing feels like the actors showed up on the set without a sense of what characters to play and Demme, working with weak material, is clueless about what guidance to offer.

Streep manages to find as much character as the piece contains. And, when she sings, she makes us believe that Ricki could still be a star. If only the words in the script could create as much magic as when the actress interprets the lyrics of a song. Streep makes us believe almost anything when she sings. And, in Ricki and the Flash, she sings quite a bit.

Film Nutritional Value

Ricki and the Flash

* Content: Medium. The idea of a mother and daughter trying to mend their relationship should be made-to-order Streep. But it’s not.

* Entertainment: Medium. While Streep works very hard she can’t overcome the weakness of Diablo Cody’s script and Jonathan Demme’s direction.

* Message: Medium. Although the film tries to tell a compelling story, Cody’s script doesn’t dig deeply enough to fully examine the central relationship.

* Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to consider how connect family members can be worthwhile even if not carefully explored.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. While the film could be more focused, it does offer an opportunity to talk as a family about the issues of disconnection. And Meryl Streep.

(Ricki and the Flash is rated PG-13 for “thematic material, brief drug content, sexuality and language.” The film runs 101 minutes.)

3 Popcorn Buckets

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