Film Review: Ricki and the Flash

Meryl Streep goes big as an over-the-hill rock singer who reunites with her ex-husband and estranged children in a muddled comedy-drama misconceived by 'Juno' writer Diablo Cody.
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Oscar-winning star, Oscar-winning director, Oscar-winning screenwriter…Ricki and the Flash has plenty of pedigree, but it’s not going to land high on the resumes of Meryl Streep, Jonathan Demme and Diablo Cody. This tale of an aging rock chick was likely more gratifying for the lavishly lauded Streep than it will be for audiences who turn out, as it gives her a chance to get down, cut loose and belt songs like “Drift Away” and “Let’s Work Together” and act opposite her real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer. Once again, Streep immerses herself in a persona unlike anything she’s done before, but it’s a character poorly fleshed out by Juno creator Cody.

The opening credits introduce us to Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) in her element, singing a cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” with her backup band The Flash at their regular haunt, Tarzana, California’s Salt Well, a working-class bar whose grizzled demographic seems to average out around 65. With braids cascading down one side of her face and long straight hair down the other, she’s a studied entertainer with a tiny but devoted following. (Frankly, the true standout of the group is her ace guitarist, played by real-life rock god Rick Springfield.)

The plot is set in motion when Ricki receives a call from her wealthy and successful ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline), alerting her that their daughter Julie (Gummer) is in a deep depression over her sudden rejection by her fiancé. Ricki gets on a plane to Indianapolis, but it’s clear from the outset this will be a most awkward family reunion: Mom’s musical aspirations have always taken precedence over family obligations and her relationship with her three grown children is seriously strained. With her uncombed hair looking like a crow’s nest, Julie is indeed in bad shape, but Ricki rises to the occasion and begins a healing process that seems beyond the capability of her reserved ex.

Cody’s screenplay follows a very predictable path to forgiveness and redemption, but that’s not the only lazy thing about it. Ricki, who has one LP to her name, has from all evidence never come close to her dreams of stardom, and so her virtual abandonment of her children seems both selfish and foolhardy. But Cody asks us to accept that she’s always had the heart of a good mother, and that her outré presence is just what her stuck-up family needs at this moment in time. (Forget the fact that Pete’s current wife Maureen, played by Broadway superstar Audra McDonald, is a highly efficient, nurturing saint.) The bogus nature of the whole enterprise is encapsulated in the finale, the wedding of Ricki’s son Joshua (Sebastian Stan), in which the upscale guests sniff their noses at the presence of this gauche woman and end up all dancing cheerfully in unison to her cover of a Bruce Springsteen song.

Streep, who learned to play guitar for the role (of course!), makes a passable but unexceptional rock front-woman, which is probably appropriate given the seedy dive where she performs, but she works a bit too hard to make Ricki comically outlandish, to the detriment of the film’s later attempts at poignancy. Gummer, who is very amusing in her recurring role as a ditzy lawyer on “The Good Wife,” seems determined to out-act her mom in the ultimately thankless role of the shell-shocked Julie. But Kline underplays nicely as Pete, a dignified man who has moved way beyond his wild first wife but still harbors feelings for her. McDonald dominates the movie’s best scene, an icy bedroom showdown with Ricki. And the film lucked out with the casting of Springfield, a great, charismatic guitarist who also brings a winning tenderness to his scenes with Streep.

Demme, who directed the classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense and other music docs, gives the film an extra boost by recording the performances live—the overqualified Flash also includes Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell on keyboards, the late Rick Rosas on bass, and Joe Vitale, the original touring drummer for Crosby, Stills & Nash. This writer would love to know what was going on in their heads as they backed Meryl Streep on covers of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Pink’s “Get the Party Started.”

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