Flash in a pan
Not a big fan of dramatic Meryl Streep--all that technical perfection, the precision, the rather chilly Nordic beauty serving up some of the most passionate dramas in recent Hollywood (Sophie's Choice, The French Lieutenant's Woman) left me, well, cold.
Liked Streep best in Fred Schepisi's A Cry in the Dark where her character--a Seventh Day Adventist--alienated not just the audience but almost everyone in Australian society. Streep in a severe Joan of Arc 'do cast impassive eyes over the courtroom audience--slightly more irritated eyes at the television camera--and the disapproving response is almost palpable (The public seems to be punishing her less for killing her child than for refusing to give them the heartrending family melodrama they crave). You're disturbed by the indictment of media and public opinion; you're--yes--moved by the sight of this emotionally stunted woman struggling to hold on to her sense of self when everyone else clearly wanted her to let go.
Strangely enough her flaws--the perfection, the precision, the chill beauty--become virtues in her comedies. In She Devil she's the bright point in an otherwise dull film; in Postcards from the Edge she's funny and sings, an irresistible combination (she has a fine voice, and early in her life took opera lessons from vocal coach Estelle Liebling). In Death Becomes Her she's Hollywood star Madeline Ashton, who avoids being upstaged in the midst of Robert Zemeckis' metaphysical dark comedy about mortality by being larger-than-life, by unleashing emotions and insecurities and punchlines on the same demented scale as the digital buffoonery ("wrinkle wrinkle little star, hope they never see the scars").
Leave it to Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody to persuade Streep to submit her most likable performance in years. Ricki (formerly Linda) left her family in Indianapolis years ago to pursue her dreams of becoming a rock star; when she hears that her daughter attempted suicide she flies back to help.
A nice little setup with sparks flying between husband and wife / upper class and lower / West Coast and Midwest / liberal and conservative, plus a number of clever combinations along the way (husband Pete (Kevin Kline) is a wealthy liberal who hides his high-quality pot in the freezer while Ricki identifies as a blue-collar Republican).
Demme and Cody don't quite manage to follow up on their initial cleverness; the film ends (skip to the next paragraph if you plan to watch) as most classic Hollywood films do, with a wedding. We're left with at most a bittersweet tang to the final images, all that's left of the collision promised at the beginning, carefully circumscribed along the way. It's in a way a reprise of Demme's far better Rachel Getting Married, only with the bitter feuds settled (more or less), the relationships largely repaired, the primacy of parents and preciousness of offsprings properly asserted. It's as if Rachel left such a bad taste in Demme's mouth he wanted to do it all again, only happier.
Which somehow doesn't matter all that much. If we see it as less a serious drama and more an excuse for Demme to put one of America's most respected actress onstage, doing what she's really meant to do--be funny and sing--then what more need we ask? Streep gives it her honest all, drying skin and age lines showing, dark mascara deliberately caked round the eyes. She's a wonderful agent for chaos shaking up Pete's quietly tasteful somewhat lifeless family; and when the scene threatens to roll over and die she cuts loose with her raucous laugh and we're alert and listening again.
She's not operating in a vacuum; Demme's too deft a hand at casting to allow her to hang on by herself. He's picked Kline (like the superb Bill Irwin in Rachel) as the comic actor turned straight man, furtively sneaking in fun line readings under an otherwise solemn demeanor; Rick Springfield (I know!) as Ricki's improbably sweet, impossibly loyal rock band boyfriend; and Streep's own real-life daughter Marnie Gummer, superb as Ricki's spiky-vulnerable onscreen daughter Julie.
Demme's good at ensemble casting, at directing individual performances, at creating intimate moments between two excellent actors (the scene where Ricki and Pete shares Pete's secret stash is a minor comic gem), but arguably the best excuse for this movie is to have Demme shooting a musical number again. His camera glides to the left and right; cuts unobtrusively to either emphasize the beat, or emphasize a moment; knows when to go to long shot and take in the whole room's reaction to a particularly strong number. He allows the songs and the feelings they represent to shine through, all the while shining especially bright thanks to his graceful near-invisible filmmaking. Does the film have any urgent reason for being? Not really; still grateful it's here, would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it.
First published in Businessworld 9.10.15