Ricki and the Flash


Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

(2015) Dramedy (Tri-Star) Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate, Rick Rosas, Bernie Worrell, Joe Vitale, Ben Platt, Audra McDonald, Big Jim Wheeler, Keala Settle, Joe Toutebon, Aaron Clifton Moten, Peter C. Demme, Adam Shulman, Charlotte Rae, Bill Irwin, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Joyce, Hailey Gates. Directed by Jonathan Demme

I was a rock critic in the Bay Area for more than a decade and in that time I spent a whole lot of time in bars seeing a whole lot of bands. It was during this time that I developed a healthy respect, even an appreciation for bar bands. This is generally used as a derogatory term, but there is a kind of nobility about bar bands that the big stadium bands often lack. I’ve had more fun listening to a bar band do covers than listening to the bands that originated them in a big, impersonal arena.

Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) didn’t always want to front a bar band. She went to L.A. with dreams of becoming a rock star, and even made a single album – on vinyl, to give you an idea of how long ago this was – which sank like a stone. She’s never really given up on her rock and roll dream but she has more or less come to terms that she is never going to open for the Rolling Stones, but now middle aged, she clerks at a grocery store to make ends meet and pays gigs at a local bar to keep her from going insane. She is having a relationship with Greg (Springfield), her lead guitarist, although she doesn’t like to acknowledge it publicly.

Then again, Ricki has a history with relationships and it isn’t good. She has a family – an ex-husband and three kids – but she abandoned them to chase her rock and roll dream and another woman raised them. Her relationship with her children is pretty rocky to say the least.

Then she gets a call from her ex, Pete (Kline) – her daughter Julie (Gummer) was deserted by her husband who left her for another woman, and she’s taken it hard. She hasn’t changed clothes in days, hasn’t bathed, mopes in her room, hasn’t eaten and barely talks to anyone. Pete is desperate; his wife Maureen (McDonald) is away tending to her own father who is in the end stage of Alzheimer’s and he needs help with Julie. So despite being bankrupt, she scrapes together what little cash she has – all of it – and buys a ticket to Indianapolis.

There she discovers that Pete has done very well for himself with a beautiful house in a gated community. Ricki, being Ricki, comes dressed like an 80s rocker chick – which is what she is – with an oddball braided hair style that no decade would be willing to claim as its own. She’s a bit like a tornado, inflicting damage indiscriminately and impossible to ignore. Her sons Adam (Westrate) who is gay and wants nothing to do with her, and Josh (Stan) who is relatively warm to her but is getting married soon and hasn’t invited her, make obligatory appearances. Ricki though starts to connect with Julie somewhat, at least bringing her out of her funk. Then Maureen returns, and Ricki is summarily dismissed.

Back at home, she goes back to her life of weekly gigs, working at the grocery store and living on almost nothing. However, her time back in Indy has given her an appreciation for not being alone and her relationship with Greg begins to flower as a result of it. Out of the blue she gets an invitation to Josh’s wedding; part of her wants to go, part of her is scared that she’s not wanted and most of her knows that she couldn’t afford a plane ticket even if she wanted to go. Can rock and roll save Ricki Rendazzo?

As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time in bars and I’m guessing Diablo Cody, who wrote this thing based on the experiences of her mother-in-law, has as well. She gets the vibe perfectly, although bands with the talent that the Flash have are pretty few and far between – that’s one of the charms of a bar band is that for the most part they have more passion than talent. The world’s best bar band is Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, a fact that the movie gives a respectful nod to. However, few bar bands have the pedigree of the Flash – with Springfield on guitar, Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, session drummer Joe Vitale and Neil Young’s bass player Rick Rosas who sadly passed away after this was filmed. The movie has the advantage of using these musicians, and Streep showed in Mamma Mia that she’s a good singer and while she is more of a Bonnie Raitt kind of vocalist and less of a belter, she holds her own vocally.

Streep isn’t afraid to show she’s getting on; clearly Ricki’s best days are behind her but she still is a handsome woman who looks pretty damn good in a leather catsuit. Streep’s creation of this character is dead on; I’ve met many women like her who are kind of a stuck in an era and for whom the music is everything. Ricki is through and through a rocker chick and would not think that an unfair description. She wears her allegiance proudly.

Kline is one of my favorite actors and here he plays a bit of a square, but when he’s around Ricki he actually blossoms a bit. Usually in pictures of this sort the gender roles are reversed but Pete realizes that he has to be the responsible one for his kids and when he’s left holding the bag at last, he finds himself the most stable woman he can to be their mom. Kline is at his best when he’s playing characters that are a little bit oblivious to the world around them and Pete carries that quality as well. Streep and Kline are two of the best actors in the business and watching them together is a rare treat.

Streep also gets to act with her real life daughter who plays her onscreen daughter and Gummer shows that she didn’t get the part through any sort of nepotism; the lady can act as well and while there will always be her mom’s shadow looming around her, one has to admit that Streep’s shadow really covers nearly every actress of the last 20 years – that’s how good she is – and Gummer handles it extraordinarily well. We darn tootin’ will see more of Gummer and in, I predict, some higher profile roles.

The music here is mainly covers, which is as it should be. The Flash are as I’ve explained above a lot better than the average bar band in covering these songs, and they certainly don’t disgrace any of them. That’s a plus for a movie like this.

Where the movie falters the most is that the cliche monster is actively working on some of the scenes and plot points. We know how this is going to end almost from the moment the movie kicks into gear with Ricki singing Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and to be honest, the characters are so compelling that you don’t mind that the movie is heading to an obligatory feel good vibe. The point the movie is trying to make I guess is that family is family, even when they make horrible mistakes. There is redemption even for the most unforgivable errors within family and that is true enough. Demme, who is into his 70s now and has had a hell of a career of his own, understands that. This really isn’t typical of a Jonathan Demme film, but then again he’s made a career out of keeping audiences guessing.

This isn’t disposable entertainment exactly, but it is as close as you can get to it in a movie that Meryl Streep is in. Like the local bar with the local cover band playing on a Thursday night, it is a movie that demands you have a good time whether you want to or not. It is a movie that reeks of stale beer, desperate women with too much perfume and too much make-up, working class men who are desperate to relive their glory days, and the soundtrack of a generation that is now, as your critic is, a bit long in the tooth. And Amen, Amen, Amen to all that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Kline are always worth seeing. Gets the bar band vibe right.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too cliche a little too often. Tends to use a sledgehammer to make its points.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find some drug use, foul language, sexuality and adult content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep and Kline previously starred together in Sophie’s Choice, for which Streep won her second Oscar. At the time, Streep was pregnant with her daughter Mamie who would play her daughter in this film, 33 years later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Complicated
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sinister 2

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You Don’t Mess With the Zohan


You Don't Mess With the Zohan

Adam Sandler: Deadly but cute!

(2008) Comedy (Columbia) Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Nick Swardson, Rob Schneider, Kevin Nealon, Lainie Kazan, Ido Mosseri, Dave Matthews, Michael Buffer, Charlotte Rae, Chris Rock, Shelley Berman, George Takei, Bruce Villanch, Mariah Carey. Directed by Dennis Dugan

 

There are those who are of the persuasion that silliness is next to godliness, and Adam Sandler is I do believe one of those sorts. If it’s funny, it’s money and Sandler is a very rich man. When he releases a new movie, people take notice and so it was when this was released in theaters. Was it worth the notice though?

Zohan (Sandler) is the finest counter-terrorist agent in Israel. He is handsome, brave, an amazing fighter and completely impervious to pain (he drops piranhas down his bathing trunks to prove this point). He is beloved in his home country, particularly by the ladies. He is respected by his leaders. He is feared by the enemies of his country. He has it all.

Except what he really wants – to be a hairdresser. Tired of the fights with his nemesis the Phantom (Turturro), he stages his own death and arranges to ship himself to New York City in a container of dogs. He finds a place to stay and gets himself a job as a stylist in the salon of Dalia (Chriqui) which he brings much success to due to his practice of having sex with the older clients who tell their friends and so on and so on.

However a greedy developer (Buffer) wants to mow down the shops on the street – both Arab and Jewish – to put up a mall. Holy Hummus Batman – can the traditional enemies work together to stop this nefarious plot and return to hating each other in harmony?

This was Sandler’s 2008 summer comedy and as you can see by the box office numbers below that it did pretty well, but still this movie isn’t considered one of his classics. For one thing, it’s pretty scattered in terms of plot – the movie kinda meanders along and some of the plot points seem forced to me.

The physical comedy works pretty nicely, although there are some CGI bits (like the piranha in the pants gag) that are appalling. When the Zohan and the Phantom fight, they are almost super-powered which as action movie spoof might work well (think the Scary Movie films) but in a non-spoof comedy look kind of dumb. To be fair, some of those fight scenes are clever.

Sandler is one of the most likable comedy stars in Hollywood, right up there with Tim Allen and Kevin James. He has to be at his most charming in order to hold the movie together, particularly since he is purported to be catnip to women of every age and gender. Sandler has always been easy on the eyes (or so I’m told by those who have a better appreciation of male beauty than I do) and so that at least isn’t much of a stretch.

Turturro was terrific with Sandler in Deeds and so he is again here. The Phantom is a somewhat distorted but ultimately recognizable reflection of Zohan if you don’t mind crazy funhouse mirrors. Turturro is an able comic who sometimes doesn’t get his due in the business; I thought he was one of the bright spots in a movie that needed them.

There are those who will grouse that the Arab-Israeli conflict is nothing to make jokes about; for my money, the more that we joke about something, the more human it becomes and the more human something becomes, the better equipped we are to deal with it. I liked the concept of the film enough, although the execution left something to be desired. Had Sandler and co-writers Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel elected to make something that relied less on being outrageous and more on being funny, they really would have been on to something.

WHY RENT THIS: Sandler is as charming as ever and Turturro makes a fine foil.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is a bit unfocused and too many bits don’t work. May go a little bit over-the-top for some in terms of crudity.

FAMILY VALUES:  The humor can be crude and a lot of it is sexually-oriented. There’s also quite a bit of foul language involved and yes, nudity in an Adam Sandler film.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie had actually been written back in 2000 but pre-production was halted after 9-11due to the terrorist in New York theme for seven years.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Surprisingly, the Blu-Ray is feature-packed. There are featurettes on Sandler’s stunt doubles, on the Arab-Israeli conflict , on singer Dave Matthews (who has a small part in the film) and on the celebrity cameo appearances. There’s a pop-up translator that takes some of Zohan’s dialogue and translates it as well as a montage of girls in bikinis who appeared in the film for those inclined to perve on such things.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $199.9M on an $90M production budget; the movie made money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Devil Inside