Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 10, 2015
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Ricki, Crippled Carts, Barbarian TV
Longtime readers of this column are aware of how little I have liked Meryl
Streep's performances ever since I first saw her in The Deer Hunter back in
In recent years, she has given a couple of performances that I enjoyed and even
admired. And I think that in Ricki and the Flash she does splendidly.
Ricki is the stage name of an aging rock singer named Linda, who walked away
from her husband and three young children in order to move to California to
pursue her career in rock-and-roll. Now all her children are of marriageable
age and she barely knows them; her husband's second wife, Maureen (Audra
McDonald), raised them as if they were her own.
Needless to say, Ricki's rock "career" never arrived. She cut one album, back
in the days of vinyl; now she plays in a very good bar band, covering other
people's hits, and earns a living by being a checker at Total Foods. All for the
She really had no choice, did she? She had to follow her dream, didn't she?
Certainly that's the dogma that gets tossed around in movie after movie and
meme after meme: Never give up! Follow your dream!
Here's a clue, folks. By the time you're near (or in) your sixties, and you gave
up everything -- marriage, family -- in pursuit of your dream, maybe it's time
to pack it in and admit that it isn't going to happen for you.
Only in the case of Ricki, even if she wanted to, she has nothing to go back to.
Her husband, Pete (Kevin Kline) may still yearn for the woman he once loved,
but he's happily married now to a loyal wife who stayed with him. One son,
Josh (Sebastian Stan) is still willing to make a place for his mom in his life;
another, Adam (Nick Westrate), is self-absorbed in his own inescapable destiny;
and the daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer), has just been jilted by her
husband, who left her for another woman.
They're not exactly begging Mommy to come home. Those days are over.
And yet this sensitively written script (by Juno scriptwriter Diablo Cody -- a
woman, despite the masculine Spanish name that means "devil"), admits that
even a mother who abandoned her family, making it clear that she valued her
music more than her children, has a role to play in their lives.
When Ricki, having spent her last dime on the plane ticket, shows up at her
ex-husband's mansionesque house, Julie greets her with so much hostility that
I could see the edges of the screen beginning to give off smoke. Yet over the
next few days, with Ricki staying in the house because she doesn't have money
for a motel, she and Julie are able to find a way to do each other some
In other words, this is a story about family love and family damage. Ricki's
selfishness is excused, in her own mind, by the fact that she was "born to be
Ricki," as if she didn't have any choice in the matter. And what makes it more
poignant is that her band, The Flash, really is way better than your ordinary
In fact, Meryl Streep does a pretty good job of selling an Ann Wilson-like
singing style. No, she doesn't actually have good enough pitch control to be a
first-rate rock singer, but she has some pretty good chops. And it helps that
Ricki's lover and the lead guitarist in The Flash, Greg, is played by Rick
Unlike Streep, as a musician Springfield is the real thing (his latest album is
the excellent Songs for the End of the World). And, despite his lack of Oscar
nominations, Springfield is better at acting than Streep is at singing. His years
on General Hospital were not wasted, and his scenes with Streep are the
emotional heart of this movie.
This is not to denigrate the power of Ricki's scenes with her daughter Julie.
Since Julie is played by Streep's real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer, you
certainly have no problem believing the physical resemblance between them.
But this is more than stunt casting. Gummer is a wonderful actor. But
because her character is broken and self-absorbed, she can't give us the
warmth that makes the Springfield-Streep scenes so poignant and warm.
It's Julie who represents all the damage that Ricki's selfish choices caused to
the people who loved and needed her. And it's Greg (Springfield) who
represents her only remaining hope of love and happiness.
When Streep played The Wife Who Walked Away in Kramer vs. Kramer back in
1979, the script never gave her a chance to redeem herself. She was Generic
Woman Who Must Free Herself From Male Domination, a character that seems
even shallower now, after another 36 years of political correctness.
With this film, Streep has a better role and a chance to show the human being
behind the selfish, short-sighted choices.
Not for a moment does the film insist that the audience agree that she made
the right choice -- or the wrong one. But that's how life is. Right or wrong,
all we can ever do is start where we are now and try to make better choices
And that's what Ricki and the Flash is about: The chance to make better
choices. Every member of the family faces choices in this movie, and they all
choose healing and reconciliation, even if in most cases it's a symbolic choice
and may not last.
The decision by both sons to dance while their mother's band performs at
Josh's wedding, for instance, and the stepmother's decision to invite Ricki to
the wedding -- these don't signify permanent forgiveness, but they're all steps
in the right direction.
This movie isn't suspenseful, so I'm not worried about spoilers. What makes it
worth watching is the love that the writer and the actors create together. And
the pretty good music.
The best song is the one that Streep plays alone, on acoustic guitar, in the
living room of her ex-husband's house, with Pete and Julie listening. It's the
new song, the only original in this movie of covers: "Cold One." I'm
disappointed that the soundtrack only has the later electric version; I really
want that acoustic performance. (You can catch it on video here; scroll down to the picture with Streep
holding an acoustic guitar.)
Despite that shortcoming, and the occasional flaws in Streep's singing, this is
an unusually good soundtrack album. Who knew that at age 66 Meryl Streep
would cut a hit album? But this one deserves to be a hit. (There's also an
"inspired by" album called American Ballads: Country Rock Music Inspired by
the Film With The Flash and Ricki which isn't as good, but isn't bad, either.)
As an added bonus, the senile grandmother, Oma, is played by Charlotte
Rae, the mother-figure in The Facts of Life (1979-86).
If I can overcome my anti-Streep feelings and love this film, I think there's a
good chance that many will like it even more than I did. After a summer of
mostly mediocre comic-book movies, it's nice that somebody made a first-rate film for grownups.
And even though Rick Springfield kind of steals the movie's heart, I think
Streep would not be too offended if I pointed out that her daughter, Mamie
Gummer, is a superb actor -- more real, less calculating than Streep was at
the same age. I look forward to seeing her in stronger roles than she's had a
chance to play up to now.
We have been regular customers of Harris Teeter since they first bought out
Bestway and established themselves as the upscale grocery store in
For years I used to forage for shopping carts that people had dragged far from
the Harris Teeter at Elm and Pisgah Church, and push them, sometimes in
trains as large as six or seven, up the hill to return them to the store. So I
knew very well that cart theft was common, and could be a severe problem.
Every lost or destroyed cart has to be paid for out of store revenues. That
means the cart thieves cost all the customers money, in the form of higher
So I understand completely why Harris Teeter replaced their old grey carts with
new green ones that have computer-controlled locking wheels.
If you push a shopping cart beyond the perimeter of the Harris Teeter parking
lot, the rear wheels lock up and you can't push it. Or, rather, you can push it
about as easily as you could push a sledge.
All of this would be fine, except that the management of Harris Teeter has no
concern whatever for the needs and convenience of their customers.
These locking carts work by marking an electronic perimeter, rather like those
invisible "dog fences" that give a shock to the dog that strays outside its yard.
Instead of drawing that perimeter at the edges of the shopping center parking
lot, however, they arbitrarily decided that the only customers they care about
are those who are parked directly in front of the store.
If you park down by the UPS Store or Ace Hardware, or up by the Bruegger's
Bagels, you can't push your full shopping cart back to your car. Because those
are outside the perimeter. They look like they're part of the parking lot for
the shopping center, but as far as Harris Teeter is concerned, those places
On Tuesday afternoon, the parking lot in front of Harris Teeter was so full that
I would have had to park about two-thirds of the lot away from the store. But
there were plenty of spaces over by the Santa Fe Mexican Grill that were much
closer to Harris Teeter.
As is my habit, I scanned for an abandoned cart so I could push it to the store
and use it for my shopping. I found one and retrieved it. That's when I
discovered that even though I was parked closer to Harris Teeter than most of
the cars in the front lot, I was still in the hated no-man's-land where the
shopping cart's wheels won't turn.
The only way to push it back to the store was to lift up the back of the cart and
push it on its front wheels, like a really awkward wheelbarrow.
I knew then that once my cart was full -- and it was going to be full -- I
wouldn't be able to push it back to my car in the normal way.
I'm a 64-year-old man, not in the best of shape. I chose the closest available
parking place in the Harris Teeter parking lot, expecting to have the help of a
cart in carrying my purchases back to the car. Now I knew that this would not
So after I paid for my purchases, I stopped at the customer service desk to
register my complaint. The young lady there, who was not a manager, was
very sympathetic, and pointed out what I had already guessed -- that the
decision to skimp on the marking of the cart perimeter was made, not at the
local store, but by "corporate."
You know what that means, right? Because "corporate" doesn't know or care
about actual customers. They only look at numbers. It would have cost more
to establish a perimeter the full size of the shopping center parking lot -- and,
because carts would now be left farther out from the store, it would cost more
employee time to gather up abandoned carts.
That makes sense to accountants. But it makes no sense to the customers
who now have to figure out how to get their purchases home.
The young lady at the counter finally told me that the guy tending the self-checkout desk had a key that would unlock my cart. Alas, while he was quite
willing to help, the key had been taken by another employee who was going to
bring back carts that had somehow been sledged to an area behind the store.
He offered to stand outside with my purchases while I fetched my car, but I
know how slowly I walk these days, and I didn't want a lot of meltable
things to stay outside in the heat. Also, he was the only person tending the
self-checkout, and I knew from experience how annoying it can be if the
attendant isn't there.
So I declined his help and pushed the cart the ten feet from the door to the
yellow stripe that marks the perimeter. At that point, I lifted up the heavily-laden cart and wheelbarrowed it awkwardly to the median, where I perched it
while I loaded my car.
At that point, another employee came to take my cart back (which I always do,
but it was nice of him to spare me that). I pointed out to him that when
somebody is driving up and choosing a parking place, there is no signage of
any kind informing us that if we park in this area, close to the store, we won't
be able to bring our carts to the car.
His answer was to point to a sign that you cannot hope to see until you've
already parked. What do you do then, go all the way back out to your car and
Yeah, right. Slow-moving old coots like me really love having a chance to walk
to and from our car twice, especially since I'd have to move from a close-in
parking place to one much farther from the store in order to be within the
boundaries of Harris Teeter's acceptance.
There is really only one conclusion to reach. Harris Teeter does not want
customers to be able to park in the most convenient spot. Harris Teeter
wants to make us walk much farther -- or carry our groceries out without the
help of a cart.
They don't care enough to warn us before we choose an outlawed parking spot.
They're too cheap to move the perimeter so we can park near other stores and
then also shop at Harris Teeter.
In other words, they want us to shop at Food Lion.
Visiting with friends, I caught an hour of Bachelor in Paradise (on ABC), a
"reality" show that I would never have watched on my own. My friends
were amused by the antics of the characters, as a supposed "beauty" (whom I
found to be the least attractive of the women on the show in that episode, but
... go figure) jilted a man she had apparently been stringing along for weeks.
All the group scenes and solo commentaries by the participants made me sad:
It's all junior high school with sex. Instead of text messages, they needed to
have little penciled notes saying: "Do you like me? ____ Yes _____ No _____
What made it sad was that all these "beautiful people" were trying hard to fake
sincerity, as if this whole show had something to do with real life and real
I don't think I'll be watching more, mostly because I know a much better class
of people in the real world. I'd rather hang out with them. (And my friends are
all better looking, too.)
I also happened to flip past Naked and Afraid XL (Discovery Channel), in
which twelve former Naked and Afraid survivalists were plunked down in the
Colombian jungle for 40 days (unless they tapped out).
I happened to catch the moment when a woman was angrily leaving two men
who had somehow offended her -- and she had thrown their tools (two knives
and a firestarter) into a body of water where, presumably, they were
Since the survivalists have to make do with those few tools in order to catch
and kill, then skin, cook, and eat whatever protein sources they find, if this
were a real survival situation (i.e., if there weren't cameramen nearby), her
actions would be tantamount to attempted murder.
Instead, she was free to be petulant because despite the rigors of the
experience, it's still fake: They are being observed; they will not be allowed to
Later, though, from a summary by a friend who watched the whole show, and
from an open letter published by one of the contestants on Facebook, I learned
that these twelve people divided themselves into two groups. The larger group
-- which my friend called "the welfare group" -- decided that since they
wouldn't starve to death in forty days, all they needed to do was lie around
near a water source and use up as little energy as possible.
Of course, humans can't just "lie around" -- so they squabbled and quarreled
and the normal junior high stuff. Just what chimps would do, if they could
talk. In best junior-high fashion, they picked "losers" and pushed and goaded
them until they tapped out.
Again: If this had been real and there weren't producers at hand waiting to
rescue the rejects, they would certainly have died in the wilderness. When you
know it isn't quite real, attempted murder is taken rather lightly.
The two castoffs -- a man who wanted to make shelter and look for food, a
woman who got lost for a week so the other two women in her group bonded
without her -- were also introverts. Apparently that is a capital crime in this
troop of baboons.
Two of the men, though -- branded the "Alpha Males" by the show's producers
-- weren't content with sitting around sniping. They spent all day hunting for
food, and several times scored significant amounts of protein, mostly in the
form of eels.
They shared their protein finds with the welfare group, and in my friend's
opinion behaved like menschen through the entire show.
My friend -- a woman -- was disgusted by the behavior of the women on the
show. They all had a chip on their shoulder, taking umbrage at any help
offered by the men -- even when they obviously needed the help.
Feminist rage is a luxury that could not survive in a real survival situation --
you know, without cameras you can play to. Because the women knew that
the men could not possibly show rage on camera (it would instantly make them
the Bad Guys), they could behave like a tush flambee and feel righteous about
But they didn't look righteous. They looked stupid, selfish, and short-sighted. And the guys who worked hard and provided for all were treated
scornfully by the others -- though they certainly ate the food that the Alpha
Males shared with them.
Each in its own way, both Bachelor in Paradise and Naked and Afraid XL show
why civilization is so fragile, requiring constant effort and real sacrifice to
maintain. Modern Americans take civilization so much for granted that they
feel perfectly free to revert to barbarism at a moment's notice -- because they
know that the grownups around them will keep things going.
It's like a lovely quote I read the other day (and promptly forgot the source): If
everybody thinks outside the box, who's going to take care of the box?
We glorify rule-breakers, selfish people who "follow their dream," and prickly
self-righteous Offended Ones who allow themselves to become annoyed by
And the number of people who tend to the box, who take responsibility for the
well-being of others, who absorb many a word and many a harm without
lashing out -- those are the people who keep civilization alive.
Two out of twelve, if Naked and Afraid XL is any guide; about the same
proportion in Bachelor in Paradise. Is that enough to keep civilization alive?
Most of us live our lives without those reality-show cameras. With nobody
watching -- and nobody to bail us out -- how many of us are on the grownup
By the way, in case anybody's thinking of watching -- or avoiding -- Naked and
Afraid for the titillation factor, forget it. The blurring of naughty bits is so
assiduously done that they might as well be wearing thick woollen robes. You
watch for the danger, the resourcefulness, or ... the sniping, the bullying, the
Like a sad, unfunny version of Tosh.0.
Years after joining Facebook, I actually went to my home page to see what my
profile said about me.
It was an incoherent, inaccurate mess -- because I had entered what info there
was before I had learned anything about how Facebook works.
The fact is, it doesn't. There are so many counterintuitive, hidden, or
misleading ways of doing anything.
For instance, on the Family and Relationships page, my wife was not
listed, and two of my children were listed by their full names instead of by
their Facebook identities.
First, I tried to "Add a family member" in order to get my wife in there. But
when I entered her Facebook identity, the menu "Choose Relationship" listed
all kinds of options, but "wife" and "spouse" were not among them.
Nowhere was there the slightest indication that for a spouse, you have to
enter the name under "Relationship," where there is no visible tool until you
click under the word Relationship. Then you get some help. In other words,
it's like trying to find an address on Cape Cod: If you don't already know, you
can't find it.
By the way, before I found out how to put my wife's name in my "Relationship"
slot, I gave up and added her as a Family Member under the heading "Pet."
What else was I going to choose? Mother? Niece?
I'm beginning to think "badly designed" is the only kind of software
anybody makes anymore.
I'm also trying to figure out just how many pets have their own Facebook
identity ... and how they remember their passwords.