What It’s About
“Ricki and the Flash” has a good beat and you can dance to it, but for the threadbare story to work, you must suspend your disbelief at the door. The family-in-crisis plot isn’t nearly as satisfying as the vibrant musical numbers.
Oscar-winning scribe Diablo Cody (“Juno”) has written a loosey-goosey comedy-drama about a tragically hip rock chick Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep), who returns to Indianapolis when daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) has a meltdown upon the disintegration of her marriage.
Ricki, aka Linda Brummell, abandoned her family for rock ’n’ roll, but that hasn’t been working out so well. Flat broke, she plays in a dive bar’s house band at night and works as a grocery cashier during the day. Ricki arrives, looking like a Chrissie Hynde copycat, at ex-husband Pete’s (Kevin Kline) gated community McMansion and faces the music — her three grown children, with chips of various degrees on their shoulders; a conventional Midwestern lifestyle she left behind, and the “way it is” talk by second-wife Maureen (Audra McDonald).
Her road to redemption is rocky, naturally, but she tentatively reconnects with her family, sort of comes to terms with her past, and attempts to make sense of her life, trainwreck that it is. Her guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield) is ready for a relationship, but she’d rather stir up drama — because, after all, it worked so well for Fleetwood Mac.
Another subplot involves son Josh (Sebastian Stan), who didn’t tell his mother about his engagement to snooty Emily (Hailey Gates). He relents, and invited guest Ricki shows up, leather jacket over her mother-of-the-groom dress. Of course, that sets up condescending looks from the country-club set guest list, but also a gift-wrapped grand finale.
Keeping it real, three-time Oscar winner Streep — an ageless marvel — alternates between defiant and vulnerable. She hits the right notes with her “too cool for the room” demeanor, and convincingly rocks out. She has sung on screen in “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Into the Woods,” and “Postcards from the Edge,” and proves her mettle here, delivering heartfelt renditions.
Her ease fronting a band is aided by wingman Springfield, the Grammy-winning ’80s heartthrob (“General Hospital”), whose musicality is evident. The guys who comprise The Flash are veteran sidemen — Joe Vitale, Bernie Worrell and Rick Rosas, a Neil Young collaborator who died shortly after the film wrapped.
A level of comfort is obvious with Kline, her co-star in “Sophie’s Choice” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” who effortlessly plays the jilted husband, an affluent man with an impeccable sense of decorum.
Broadway legend Audra McDonald, no slouch herself with a record six Tonys, holds her own against Streep as ‘the other Mother.” Gummer (Streep’s real-life daughter) shines as the despondent daughter who makes peace with Mom, and is a hoot in early scenes slouching around in pajamas with serious bedhead. The other boys aren’t as clearly drawn, and Adam’s open hostility is quite ugly.
Ben Platt (“Pitch Perfect”) is sweet as The Salt Well’s young bartender, and funnyman Bill Irwin has one terrific scene as an upset bakery customer. Charlotte Rae (“The Facts of Life”) appears as Pete’s dementia-addled mother.
Basically, the movie is aimed at the middle-age crowd, my tribe of gray-haired and bald-spotted Baby Boomers. It works on that level, but I’m not sure what other audience would be as captivated.
Director Jonathan Demme knows a thing or two about filming music (“Stop Making Sense” documentary on the Talking Heads) and weddings (“Rachel Getting Married”), and with cinematographer Declan Quinn’s fine work shooting the music numbers live, there is a palpable electricity and energy on stage.
When Cody’s whip-smart, crackling dialogue is working, the movie hums along, but some of the characters aren’t fully realized, and situations seem forced at times. She is best at correlating opposites and poking at conventions.
What Doesn’t Work
Like Ricki, the film is rough around the edges. Would such a free spirit as Ricki be an arch-conservative Republican? Or is it a ploy to get laughs?
Like a wedding band who gets everyone on his feet, the movie tries hard to entertain — just go with it and live in the moment. Demme makes sure we believe in the power of music to soothe our soul.
2 1/2 stars
out of 4
Director: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald
Rated: PG-13 for thematic material, brief drug content, sexuality and language