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Rocks Off: Streep Goes Electric, ‘Fantastic Four’ Goes Pffft

Hollywood whiffs in two very different, but equally depressing, ways.

I’ve never seen a movie try to be as right-thinking as Ricki and the Flash and still be so wrong. It keeps telling you it loves everybody and has a giant heart, and that those sentiments are more important than anything the screenwriter or director did. The big straight wedding is catered by really helpful lesbians, OK? So lay off! It’s not that I don’t believe that the filmmakers mean well. It’s just that they don’t think it’s pitiful enough that, decades ago, selfish, old Ricki Rendazzo left her husband and three kids to chase rock-and-roll stardom that never came, and that all the chasing amounted to was a now-out-of-print album from the 1980s called Silk Night Sky. It’s not enough to make Ricki toil drearily as a cashier at a fake Whole Foods and stand over a small stove in a small kitchen pushing food around a frying pan. No, no. She has to perform in Tarzana, California, and Ricki can’t even be her real name. It’s … Linda Brummell. Nor does it suffice to have Ricki do covers in one of those watering holes that’s half-empty but whose patrons are all painfully enthusiastic. It’s that she and the boys in her band (the Flash) must follow a mandate to do more contemporary hits, and so here comes Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” (It’s like a bar you’d find in Clear Channel, California.)

And because, alas, Ricki — poor, super-duper-down-on-her-luck Ricki — is played by Meryl Streep, her version of “Bad Romance” can’t simply be a cover. It has to be a trudge among the Stations of the Cross. Once more, Streep’s going for maximum authenticity. She sings and plays guitar alongside professional musicians, including Rick Springfield as Greg, the Flash’s lead guitarist, whose boyfriendly affection practically gives Ricki hives. And Streep couldn’t have just played some washed-up never-was. She has to give it blockbuster oomph. The hair alone is a thing: long, blonde, and swept to one side, brown on the side that’s exposed, with three or four plaits on her shoulder and bangs through which she can glower. She is clad in leather and rings and bracelets and tights and boots, with a guitar slung over her back, and you don’t know whether she’s ready to rock or colonize Middle-earth.

All of that hard style is meant to clash with the soft domesticity that the movie plunks Ricki into. She gets a call from her limp ex, Pete (Kevin Kline), informing her that a recent divorce has pushed their daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer), off the rails. She scrapes her way to Indiana and Pete’s gated village, which contains a spacious house that drops Ricki’s jaw. Symbolism ensues: She’s more affectionate to the state-of-the-art refrigerator than she ever is to Greg. That would seem to explain Ricki’s signature original song, whose rueful refrain is, “I’m a cold one.”

After some awkward pleasantries between her and Pete, Julie spills down from her bedroom like floodwater and proceeds to douse Ricki in bile. Knowing that Gummer is Streep’s biological daughter isn’t required. You can tell they’re related because Gummer’s hair wants an Oscar too. For three or four scenes it’s stage-crazy, pointing in 300 different directions. Gummer is a smart, intuitive actor who some of us have appreciated for years, and it looks as if this might be her movie for one or two scenes. She gets to do a lot of huffing and puffing, but right before she can blow down the house, the movie puts the character in a corner and barely lets her back in on the presiding action.

The film, which Diablo Cody wrote and Jonathan Demme directed, is a work of bulk-size bogusness. Barely a single scene is convincing. When Julie deluges into the kitchen, she’s wearing an X concert T-shirt. Who put that on her? Julie’s breakup is a pretext for Cody to manufacture fireworks elsewhere, like between Ricki and her two sons, one of whom, Adam (Nick Westrate), is gay and the other, Josh (Sebastian Stan), whom is engaged to a horridly prim woman (Hailey Gates) who doesn’t want Ricki at the wedding. The kids’ lives are news to Ricki. Everything about her family is.

Naturally, this all comes to a head at family dinner, set at one of those uptight, white-tablecloth, university-club-style restaurants where the outburst appalls the surrounding uptight diners. It’s an embarrassing scene in which almost everybody gets to grandstand, but Cody and Demme put the already-rickety sequence on dangerously wobbly legs. Adam gets to say of Ricki, “Oh my god, she’s parenting. Somebody bring a camera.” And Streep just rocks forward and engorges her eyes, like a woman who can’t believe this scene, either.

At this point, Streep is a victim of her virtuosity. People can’t quite see her clearly enough to know whether she can do wrong or do better. When Ricki and the Flash ended, the guy to my right leaned over to his seatmate and said what’s basically become a motto: “Meryl Streep can do anything.” I’d add: including get away with murder, which she’s been doing a lot lately, in The Iron Lady, August: Osage County, and Into the Woods, movies with moviemaking feeble enough to convince some people that they’re seeing everlasting genius. Still, she’s an artist, and will do what’s necessary to make a part hers. Here that appears to entail playing whatever it is that made the character write a ballad in which she compares herself to a beer.

Ricki GarbageSony Pictures Entertainment

Whether the news is good or awful, Ricki’s life as a girlfriend and mother is one long “Why didn’t you tell me?” It’s entirely reactive. What Ricki does know, besides the lyrics to “Wooly Bully,” are the price codes for stuff like milk and organic bananas. The scene in which she discloses that is the best in the movie. Ricki and Pete are stoned for it. She’s sitting on the counter with cookie dough and a spoon, and Pete’s struggling to disobey his dominant starchiness. It’s not that the writing is particularly good here. It’s that, with Gummer asleep in the other room, Streep and Kline are reaching into their personal and professional friendship to create a crackle of warmth between two pieces of cardboard. It feels like cheating, but who cares? Suddenly, two actors finally seem as if they’ve got something interesting to play.

But that scene is also one in a long line of moments in which Cody and Demme’s pursuit of normal people experiencing normal emotion turns up one condescension after the next. Take Pete’s current wife, Maureen. She’s the one thing everybody’s always bragging to Ricki about. Played by Audra McDonald, she’s a saintly doctor who’s right there waiting for a heart-to-heart when Ricki emerges from the shower. The movie would never make a big deal that Maureen is black. You have eyes, though, and she does mention it. And McDonald spends this scene with Streep with a rag on her head, lecturing Ricki about how it’s Maureen who raised the kids after Ricki walked out on them. In the scene before it, Maureen’s first, she’s serving breakfast. No one means anything by any of this. In the movie’s imagination, and given her career and poise and centrality to the family, Maureen is the most powerful person in the film. But it’s nominal power. She barely has three scenes. And it’s a touch nutty that you’d cast a theater icon, who just won her sixth Tony (for playing Billie Holiday!), in a quasi-musical in which Meryl Streep does all the singing.

You know Demme means well by Maureen and the women playing the lesbian caterers and by having the late session musician Rick Rosas and the keyboard legend Bernie Worrell round out the Flash. But it’s the worst kind of diversification, since all this color signals is support, help. It doesn’t feel great to doubt Demme. He’s a good filmmaker who’s lost his way. He gets the benefit of the doubt because he’s one of the good guys. It’s not only because he enjoyed a terrific decade-or-so stretch of pop movies and solid hits, from Melvin and HowardStop Making Sense, and Something Wild to The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. It’s also because the movies had a strange energy and visual intelligence. There was an artist’s sensibility behind them.

He also gets the benefit of the doubt because he has taken up the cause of social justice and likes what we’re forced to call “world music.” But some of us have been waiting for that passion for equal rights and representation to show up somewhere other than in his documentaries and beyond the periphery of his fiction. (It’s true that he remade The Manchurian Candidate with Streep, Denzel Washington, and Kimberly Elise, but that was a movie in which the government turned Washington into a killing machine to make some white lady president.)

For me, Demme’s progressive vision culminated with The Truth About Charlie, a remake of Charade that came and went in 2002. Mark Wahlberg was the star, but only nominally. Demme had managed to staff the movie with a significant parade of nonwhite actors and was pointing a way forward that, at the time, seemed to me to be electric and incontrovertible. He made something like world music seem borderless and antinational — like the music of the world. The movie was only so-so as a thriller, but it was utterly persuasive as a global party. It’s the best film an American director has made about the sensational collision of cultures, without any of the attendant reservations that political correctness causes. It insisted that a black woman was its star, and Thandie Newton left no reason to argue. The culture didn’t demand any of this; Demme did. He’s the director, the only one so far, to dare to turn Toni Morrison into cinema with Beloved. His version is widely regarded as a fiasco (it’s a lot better than that, and Newton and Elise are extraordinary). Anyway, it’s not a fiasco most other white guys would have had the empathy, imagination, or balls to try.

But Ricki feels like a sister to his previous family drama, Rachel Getting Married, right down to its traffic-stopping wedding toast by its heroine. Both movies are written by women and try to treat interracial marriage as a social standard by which we can measure our decency and progress. Neither movie is interested in exploring that standard — only in congratulating itself for acknowledging that there is one. Here, that leads to some almost funny, mostly forced scenes for conservative Ricki — poor, embarrassingly conservative Ricki — to express dismay, say, over the state of the country under the current president. Not far into the film, she harks back to 2008, before things “went downhill,” then turns to Worrell, as her black keyboardist, and apologizes. Streep sells the moment better than does Cody’s writing, which has no idea how to give life to the character’s Republicanism the way, in Young Adult, she was able to turn brittle bitchiness into a farce. Demme is selling the humanness of the part. But just like with Rachel Getting Married, he seems meek and dutiful, caught in the bourgeois, liberal weeds. The whole thing is like watching a Nancy Meyers movie do community service.

THE FANTASTIC FOUR20th Century Fox

When all you ask of a movie is “why?” it means not only are the people responsible not trying to give you something great, they’re not even trying to give you something you can watch. I took a friend to see Fantastic Four, and he threw his arms up enough in disbelief that I was embarrassed to have made him rush uptown from work. My notebook usually remains near my lap, but at this movie, it made involuntary trips over my mouth to cover all of my gasping. The entire experience is shameful — for us, for the filmmakers, for whoever at the studio had the job of creating the ads, in which the cast appear to be starring in hostage posters.

The movie is all “why?” Why do these actors look drugged? Why is one big collection of set pieces staged in front of that boreal screensaver? Why is the other collection set in Ye Olde Science Lab? Why when Reed Richards stretches his arms and legs do they look like somebody overcooked the linguine? Why would anybody paying to see a 100-minute movie about superheroes want to spend more than an hour watching them become those superheroes when most of the same audience watched a version of the same story 10 years ago? (We just finished shrugging off another rebooting of Spider-Man!) Why hire Jamie Bell for three scenes, then turn him into a mound of steroidal debris? Why do the makers of our comic-book movies keep insisting upon the same government-soaked, anticapitalist plot?

This time, the government comes sniffing after super-scientist Reed Richards (Miles Teller) invents a teleportation device that he hubristically uses to whisk himself, two fellow lab buddies — Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) — and his best friend, Ben (Jamie Bell), to some distant planet. Something Happens. Most of them make it back infected with new powers that the Pentagon can’t wait to weaponize. The crazy surge of electric juice that mutates the boys also flies onto Johnny’s sister, Sue (Kate Mara), who has powers of both invisibility and absurd blondeness.

To mock this movie is to obey a “Kick Me” sign. And yet to sit through Fantastic Four is to realize that even a mediocre movie is a kind of miracle. There’s a bar for the superhero adventures, and this one falls so far short of it that close study is warranted, hopefully by scientists played with more conviction that Teller and Mara. I’ve never seen good young actors this stuck. During one “climactic” scene, Mara has to bang away on a keyboard to make something crucial happen, and as I watched her slap away in a rendition of despair, I wondered how many takes it took to get that moment so wrong.

At some point, the quartet all land on Earth and the editor holds the scene so long that the three human characters and the pile of special effects comprising The Thing look lost. The movie, which Josh Trank directed and cowrote, is hunting for just one triumphant image and never finds it. It’s looking for logic in the casting and flubs that, too. Reg E. Cathey has a great smoker’s intonation that’s used to remind his black biological son, Johnny, that he’s never had it as easy as his adopted white daughter, Sue, even though he’s the brilliant bad-boy child of a well-compensated scientist who apparently has let him spend his nights combing the streets in a fast car looking for the casting director of the Fast & Furious series. When Teller says to the group, “This better work,” you have to remember there was never any discussion of the silly, elaborate-looking plan they’re executing to stop Earth from being sucked into a tractor beam. You don’t know how no one intervened to say this doesn’t make any sense. No sense at all.

There are currently two television shows — Halt and Catch Fire and Mr. Robot — that not only have titles that sound like Fantastic Four replacements, but whose content seems to find moments of anarchic triumph with regularity. This movie has no excuse to be this tepid, and yet it doesn’t feel as if anyone’s trying. Trank made Chronicle, a found-footage, non-comic-book superpowers movie that is generally regarded (by myself included) as innovative, at least as a movie about so-called origin stories. That was his first movie. It was largely independent, and, setting aside reports of his own errant behavior on the set for this second effort, it’s a giant studio contraption that appears to have crushed his imagination. Ironically, he might be one of the few young directors sucked into the franchise business whose temperament belongs to the fertile creative space of the margins. It’s surprising that more of these houses don’t collapse on more untested filmmakers. At every stage of Fantastic Four, you’re never watching this thing as a movie, per se, but as a dire, cautionary X-ray of one.