For a sentimental family dramedy that would be expected to have few surprises, Ricki and the Flash is actually full of them. It’s not in major twists of the plot; the “happily ever after” course it charts is established right from the opening cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl”. The surprises come in the emotional depth of characters we think we know, but prove to be far more. Certainly, it won’t surprise anyone to learn that Meryl Streep has once again taken a character and made it completely hers; all the while proving that she’s a pretty badass rocker, too.
Directed by Jonathan Demme in his first narrative feature in six years, and penned with sharp wit by Diablo Cody (Young Adult, Juno), Ricki and the Flash is part energetic concert movie, and part feel-good story about rebuilt familial bonds. In only moments we have an understanding of who Ricki is. Decked out in leather pants, her hair tightly braided, and under a heavy dose of mascara, Ricki is rocker who clearly sees Stevie Nicks as a stylistic influence. On stage with her crew as the house band at a small California watering hole, Ricki is a big fish in a small pond, entertaining a handful of drunken regulars who idolize the ground she walks on. When she’s not on stage her life is anything but glamorous. She can barely cover rent on the meager pay she gets as a check-out girl at the Total Foods, but she grits through the tough times with sheer force of attitude. Everything about Ricki screams “fearless”, however she’s terrified to answer the phone when she sees who it is from.
The call is coming from Indiana, which means it’s her ex-husband Peter (Kevin Kline), and when he tells Ricki that their daughter Julie (Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) is in a deep depression following a separation from her husband, it isn’t long before she’s on the next plane home. But Ricki has a lot to contend with upon her return, and this turns out to be one rocky reunion. Ricki completely left her family behind to pursue her rock ‘n roll dreams, and the resentment her children (including sons played by Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate) is palpable. A dinner gathering goes awry with pent-up bitterness from all sides, and things don’t get any easier when the kids’ stepmom Maureen (Audra McDonald), the woman who raised Ricki’s kids to adulthood, returns home and starts marking her territory.
Undeniably heartfelt and earnest, Ricki and the Flash is the least “edgy” of Cody’s screenplays, and many of the family’s troubles are skirted along fairly easily. But when there are confrontations between them they turn out to be tough, unflinching encounters that leave the participants scarred. The most powerful of these is a tense showdown between Ricki and Maureen that doesn’t necessarily go in Ricki’s favor. Cody doesn’t shy away from Ricki’s many flaws or try to forgive her numerous mistakes as an absentee mother. That this is more of a familiar mainstream effort from Cody doesn’t take away from the feelings on display, so those coming in expecting the same level of darkness seen in Young Adult should think again. This is more along the light-hearted lines of Cody’s last film, Paradise, only with greater consistency of character.
Demme finds his groove in capturing the feel of the live performances; not surprising for the director of multiple Neil Young documentaries. He and Streep, along with Rick Springfield as Ricki’s guitarist and love interest, come alive at the energy of performing in front of a crowd. The non-music scenes, on the other hand, lack Demme’s fingerprint and it’s clear his focus is spotlighting Streep the musician. She doesn’t need his help when the music stops, but ultimately she doesn’t really need his help on stage, either. It’s incredible to watch and to hear her, guitar in hand and singing every song herself, including a brand new track written by Jenny Lewis. Compared to Streep’s Oscar-winning performances this one isn’t quite as deep, but it wouldn’t be completely shocking if she wound up with one more nomination. Also great is Kevin Kline as Ricki’s playful and caring ex, who clearly still has feelings for her. And Mamie Gummer is very good as the self-destructive Julie. Gummer isn’t quite as polished as her mom but she’s getting there, and the two of them together are fantastic. Put them with Kline and you’ve got magic. Fortunately, there are plenty of chances to see them all together.
There’s a bit of a struggle as Demme tries to get a handle on the tone, and for a brief stretch it’s difficult to tell if the film is meant to be seen as funny or considered as weighty, because there are some serious issues at play. Some of this is alleviated by a string of musical numbers, which are always entertaining covers of classic Springsteen, U2, and more. But the sheer amount of stage performances prevents the film from gaining a proper rhythm, and so we barely see Ricki make a connection with her two sons. That detriment is clearly felt in the film’s big wedding finale, a dizzying contrivance that marches a happy ending right down the aisle.
There are so many wonderful characters and so much great music that Ricki and the Flash is bound to have audiences leaving with a happy tune on their mind.