REVIEW: Ricki and the Flash

8 08 2015

The knives come out in “Ricki and the Flash,” the latest big screen outing written by “Juno” scripter Diablo Cody.  The film stars Meryl Streep as the titular character, a rock musician who ditched parenting her three children to entertain a half-full dive bar.  When her daughter Julie (Streep’s own daughter, Mamie Gummer) suffers a breakdown after getting unceremoniously dumped by her husband, Ricki is called off the bench and get in the family game once more.

Not unlike Cody’s 2011 effort “Young Adult,” articulate characters relish in shanking each other with particularly cutting remarks.  Decades of resentment get dredged out in the wake of Ricki’s reappearance with each of her estranged children as well as her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and his new wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) seeking to land the final blow.  “Ricki and the Flash” plays out much like a theatrical family melodrama that packs an especially potent load of venom.

Director Jonathan Demme’s last fictional feature, “Rachel Getting Married,” featured a similar set of conflicts hashed out between relatives.  He could have settled for directing “Ricki and the Flash” on autopilot, repeating the same techniques to produce a similarly effective result.  Yet rather than replicating his verité-style camera, heavy on observational close-ups to glean emotional breakthroughs, Demme opts for something a little more standard here.

Normally, that might make for a sticking point.  But it feels like the right choice to convey Cody’s story.  Though no subgenre of “deadbeat dad” dramas exists, she seems to make a sort of gender-swapped revision to the stock character.  Presenting Ricki within a more traditional framework, ironically, draws attention to how she bristles with the established conventions of storytelling.

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REVIEW: No Strings Attached

23 07 2011

It’s pretty unfair that “No Strings Attached” was the first sex friends movie of 2011.  Simply by the calendar, it automatically made “Friends with Benefits” the other movie, the rip-off that people would avoid on principle.  Too bad, as the Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher combination is inferior to Justin and Mila’s tryst in just about every way.

Not even judging it against its doppleganger, it still disappoints, falling at the low end of the already low romantic comedy spectrum.  Kutcher and Portman have such an awkward chemistry that unfailingly feels fake and manufactured.  Their two acting backgrounds – he from “Punk’d” and “Dude, Where’s My Car,” she from working with Luc Besson, Mike Nichols, and Darren Aronofsky (not to mention her Harvard education) – make them a mismatch from the get-go.  Their incompatibility makes the inevitability of their relationship’s end just that much more unbearable.

Portman as doctor Emma and Kutcher as TV writer Adam make for strange bedfellows, quite literally.  Their relationship hardly qualifies as friendly before having sex, and how they wind up starting their casual affair makes even less sense.  Everyone surrounding them is just as brutal, including his father dating an old ex-girlfriend (Kevin Kline), his encouraging friends (Ludacris among others), and her flat and useless colleagues (Greta Gerwig and the very funny Mindy Kaling, undeservedly wasted here).  It’s an unfortunate blemish on Portman’s otherwise very impressive résumé, and perhaps the film’s reception will give her more caution in her selection of comedy films from now on.  As for Ivan Reitman, the family mojo has clearly shifted to Jason as this is clearly not the same filmmaker who made classic comedies like “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters.”

Turns out you can’t have sex without falling love in an American romantic comedy … who knew?!  In case Hollywood hasn’t hammered this into your head enough over the past decade, the studio executives gave you TWO movies this year that literally say it to your face.  So if you don’t want reruns of a rerun, choose “Friends with Benefits” because it will actually make you laugh on the way to its predictable conclusion.  “No Strings Attached,” on the other hand, will bore you with its unconvincing romance and bland melodrama.  C- / 

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 22, 2011)

22 07 2011

Director Will Gluck has made two hilarious movies in “Easy A” and “Friends with Benefits.” The two share quite a few things in common, but one not-so-flattering similarity I noticed was a slightly unfavorable portrayal of homosexuals. In “Easy A,” Dan Byrd’s gay teen Carter participates in an elaborate subterfuge with Emma Stone’s Olive in order to convince the masses that he is heterosexual. In “Friends with Benefits,” Woody Harrelson’s Vogue editor plays a one-note gay character that is totally defined on screen by his homosexuality. (He does get a slight pass, however, because the character is supposedly based on the president of Screen Gems.)

While I certainly don’t consider Glick a hateful person who would deliberately reinforce negative stereotypes, cinema has seen better, more respectful portrayals. Dwelling on my observations, I couldn’t shake one movie from my mind that handles homosexuality with decency: “In & Out,” Frank Oz’s 1997 comedy. It’s a funny, touching movie that hits on some big issues without every feeling preachy or activist, and as such, it is my pick for the “F.I.LM. of the Week.”

A high concept comedy rooted in reality, namely in imagining the fallout of Tom Hanks’ Oscar acceptance speech for “Philadelphia,” the movie follows small-town professor Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline), unintentionally outed by his Academy Award-winning former pupil (Matt Dillon) … on the week before he is about to marry his longtime girlfriend Emily (Joan Cusack).  He expects it all to blow over quickly since his marriage should be proof enough that he is straight.  Yet his sexuality is relentlessly scrutinized everyone and is only amplified by the presence of press and the prejudices of the town.  Howard is forced to confront the idea that the facade he projects to the world is just that, and Oz finds humor in his self-examination every step of the way.

When watching “In & Out,” you have to remember this came before “The Kids Are All Right,” before “Milk,” and even before “Brokeback Mountain” made gay issues a mainstream conversation topic.  It was considered very bold at the time and still retains some of that power today.  It’s relevance is due largely in part to its very level-headed perspective, most clearly articulated in its conclusion.  Sexuality is not what defines our identities, and this is what I think “Easy A” and “Friends with Benefits” seemed to be missing.  Our identity should be defined by our character, and “In & Out” glorifies this to the highest level.