In this family drama, Meryl Streep plays an aging, marginal musician who’s called back to reality — or at least out of the bar — when her estranged family needs her
Ricki and the Flash
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Running time: 102 minutes
By Jay Stone
Meryl Streep is so good at everything she does that it comes as a bit of a shock in the rock-and-roll family drama Ricki and the Flash that her character — an aging musician named Ricki Rendazzo — is a such a marginal, albeit enthusiastic, talent. Ricki plays a mediocre guitar and sings within a semi-quaver of the correct key, but she isn’t anyone’s idea of a rock superstar.
But unlike, say, Al Pacino, whose impersonation of the arena superstar Danny Collins came with a croaking voice that had to be explained as a metaphor for a once-powerful talent, Ricki isn’t meant to be a star. She’s the lead singer in a down-and-out bar band that is just good enough for the blowsy crowds in Tarzana, Ca. Ricki’s mediocrity is just another one of Meryl’s famous accents: she’s capturing a collapsed dream.
Ricki is a bit of a collapsed dream herself: she dresses in vulgar leathers and bling — she looks like the chandelier in a motorcycle clubroom — that’s way too young. She lives in what looks like student housing. She has no money. She supports our troops and hates the president.
She’s living in a rock’n’roll fantasy that has long ago played out, but she’s pulled back to reality when she gets a phone call from Pete (Kevin Kline), her ex-husband back east, asking her to come back for a family emergency. Their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter) has been left by her husband, taking her to the verge of a nervous collapse.
Ricki and the Flash is something of a melodrama about what happens when the middle-aged prodigal returns to face the reality she left behind. It turns out to be pretty much as expected: dysfunction, grievance, a bit of redemption and plenty of old 1970s rock tunes, played by an accomplished bar band with an aging lead singer.
The movie was written by Diablo Cody without the sense of freshness that made her such an explosive talent in Juno, and directed by Jonathan Demme with none of the layered mystery he brought to such projects as Philadelphia or Silence of the Lambs. It’s something of an indie portrait of delusion — there are no villains here beyond the dangerous allure of the American dream — all dressed up in the cheesy conventions of the Hollywood family drama.
It’s in the details that Ricki and the Flash becomes interesting. Gummer bears a striking resemblance to her mother, and in her grief she looks like what might happen if Streep didn’t sleep for a week. Streep takes on a similar look when confronted with her family distress — she also has a couple of grown sons who resent her abandoning them so many years before — and the first part of the film is an eerie exercise in seeing a pair of unhappy Meryl Streep lookalikes.
Cody throws in a subplot about Ricki’s day job at a Whole Foods-like grocery story (called Total Foods) that stands as a metaphor for an expensive consumerism that Ricky has also left behind. Pete, her ex-, is also wealthy but we can sense why she left him; in Kline’s anodyne portrait, Pete and Ricki have nothing in common and it’s one of the film’s weaknesses that we’re expected not only to buy them as a former couple, but to believe that they still have strong feelings for one another.
Nor do we buy his current marriage to Maureen (Audra McDonald), a calmly adult presence who senses that Ricki is causing more harm than good by coming back home. However, the character stands on her own, and the film allows everyone a measure of dignity and respect.
Best of all, though, is Greg, the lead guitarist of the Flash and Ricki’s current paramour. He’s played by musician/actor Rick Springfield, who has both a rocker’s charisma and an appealing humanity that allows him to lift entire scenes right out from under Streep and company. His movie — the story of the Flash — looks like it would be worth hearing.
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