A few months ago, I noted that movies have an insulting tendency to treat frayed familial relationships as something that can be fixed during a long-awaited trip home. The formula is predictable and transparent: tense/angry/awkward confrontation followed by somebody snapping followed by an epiphany followed by an apology (implicit or otherwise) and viola, things are different now. Two more films from this past year – Ricki and the Flash and Danny Collins – tried their hand at this premise, and while they showed some unexpected nuance in places, both still engage in some predictably shallow navel-gazing with regard to the complexity that is family.
The twist in both these outings is that the titular protagonists are past-their-prime musicians. Ricki (nee Linda, played by the always-great Meryl Streep) walked out on her family years ago to pursue her rock star dreams, ended up releasing one album, and now plays the bar circuit while working a register at a Whole Foods knockoff. She’s drawn back home when her ex (Kevin Kline) informs her that their newly-divorced daughter (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life spawn) is having a rough time. Danny (Al Pacino, whose usual haminess suits the character for once and is balanced by a healthy dose of genuine affability), in comparison, hit both higher highs and lower lows, becoming a much more successful musician (one who can fill arenas with the AARP crowd despite not having written new songs in decades) albeit one with more vices and a son he never even got to know before abandoning. His reason for reuniting is also more aggrandized: his manager (Christopher Plummer) unearths a letter of encouragement written to him years ago by John Lennon, which prompts Danny to get his act together. As far-fetched as this premise sounds, it actually happened to singer Steve Tilston – life is strange.
While both movies follow predictably redemptive arcs, what sets them apart is the absence of loud, messy drama. Yes, Gummer’s character angrily confronts her absent mother, but blames her medication and reconciles (to an extent) relatively quickly. And Danny’s grown son (played by the usually hot-headed Bobby Canavale) is none-too-pleased to see him, but nary a window is broken nor a death threat muttered.
Avoiding histrionics helps to ground these films and show a broader range of reaction to parental alienation, but it also has some adverse effects. In the case of Ricki and the Flash, the end product is light to the point of fluffy at times, a disappointment given what the director (Jonathan Demme) and writer (Diablo Cody) are capable of. Danny Collins, on the other hand, fills the void by giving us Hope (Giselle Eisenberg), Danny’s hyper, high-pitched granddaughter. The character is meant to have ADHD and we are meant to sympathize and find her endearing, but she comes across as both unbearably annoying and a questionable representation of the condition.
It is unlikely that Hollywood will develop a take on family dramedy that doesn’t grossly oversimplify any time soon, but these two films at least don’t watch like retitled rehashes of forgettable fare. Both are flawed and both feature engaging leads, but Danny Collins’ superlative supporting cast (Plummer, Cannavale, Annette Benning, and a quick – but plot-important – Nick Offerman appearance) gives it the edge.
Ricki and the Flash: 6.75/10
Danny Collins: 7.5/10