Meryl Streep is arguably the greatest living actress we all have the pleasure of “knowing” from a distance, via the magic of film. Having been nominated for a record-breaking nineteen Oscars (winning three of them), she’s a national treasure to behold, performance after performance, and to a large extent her latest character study is no exception.
Movies built around a star with such gravitas cannot always live up to her incredible standard. Directed by Jonathan Demme, a multi-talented artist behind such cinematic masterpieces as Philadelphia and The Silence of the Lambs, Ricki and the Flash is an enjoyable outing to be sure, but it can at times get lost in its own bubble and certain sequences that go on and on can tend to drag.
Penned by Diablo Cody, the bright mind behind such gems as United States of Tara, Juno, and the endlessly re-watchable and brilliant Young Adult, the herein story is that of an aging rock goddess [wannabe] who never quite made it to the big leagues. Linda Brummell, who goes by the cooler-in-her-mind name of Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep), is somewhat of a lost soul.
Pre-dating the main action of the film, she somewhere along the path of her life found that she was displeased with its trajectory. She had what would have to an outsider seemed to be a good marriage and family, and she decided to abandon it all and pursue a dream she long had to become a rock star.
Where the action begins, she is years past her prime, and she’s playing regularly to a small group of regulars, in a small time bar in Tarzana, California, where the adorable bartender Daniel (Ben Platt) adores her, but the international fandom of multi-millions she has not managed to capture. She is on lead vocals and guitar, and “the Flash” are her back-up band members, a tired looking group in it for the love of the music and not for any real aspiration for fame.
Her main band leader Greg (Rick Springfield, looking more wax figure than man here), is in love with Ricki, and she seems non-committal at best in her affection of diminishing returns, since she’s weighed down in life by enormous guilt over having made such a life-altering decision to pursue this (mostly) failed dream years ago and having given up on her family.
Given the chance at redemption, she is invited back to suburban Indianapolis, Indiana by her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline), who has called her to action out of necessity for their daughter, who has recently been divorced and is battling raging depression.
Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s actual daughter in real life) is certainly one of the highlights of the movie; she steals nearly every scene in which she appears. Whether it’s through physical humor like her outrageous hair (which somehow manages to stay up in the air in near-majestic levels of hilarious, gnarled frizziness), or her sarcastic banter she sneaks into various conversations, Julie is somehow the [passive] life of the party. Gummer walks that brilliant line between playing someone who is messed up and who has had horrible things happen to her yet managing to still make it funny, but not to the point of belittling the character; it’s a gift, really, and it would seem to prove that when it comes to acting chops, in the Streep/Gummer clan, the apple has not fallen very far from the tree.
Ricki’s reuniting with Julie was the best thing for both herself and Ricki. Their mother/daughter bond had clearly been a fractured one, however, Ricki understands certain aspects of what Julie’s going through, better than either would have probably even guessed. There are simply some things that a mother understands about her daughter, instinctively, and it is beautiful to watch their scenes together, as certain kinds of healing begin to happen both to their relationship as well as in Julie’s self-actualization, which had become entirely fragmented and lost in the wake of her destroyed marriage.
Ricki’s reuniting with the rest of the family turned out to be a little more complicated. Pete is the prototypical outrageously successful rich white guy type, and as good an actor as Kline is, that stock character doesn’t quite reach the level of roundness that would have made for a better movie. Yet, he and Streep have excellent chemistry onscreen, so their “friendly exes” vibe they’ve got going on works well enough to where it’s enjoyable to see what may or may not happen between them, as certain worlds re-collide during her visit.
Pete’s current wife Maureen (Audra McDonald), is an absolute delight. “The New Wife” role in movies is often a stock character too, despised for her having replaced whoever the kids’ “Real Mom” is. However, McDonald is so naturally beautiful and lovable, that it would be difficult for anyone to hate her, especially as the warm Maureen, who cares very much for her family into which she’s now married, and for all of whom, she cares very deeply. Maureen and Ricki have a very intense discussion in what may be the best scene of the film, confronting both their past issues with one another, their best interest and cares for Julie, and Ricki’s demons she’s been running from her whole life. It’s some powerful acting, and watching Streep and McDonald go head to head throughout the scene is nothing short of a treat.
In seeing her other children, Ricki’s relations are rocky at best. Adam (Nick Westrate) is gay and has always felt rejection on multiple levels by his mom—who, in a character trait not fleshed out well enough to warrant natural believability, holds surprisingly conservative socioeconomic/political views, despite outwardly appearing reckless and carefree—and Josh (Sebastian Stan) is newly engaged, a fact Ricki was apparently last to know.
The resentment all members of the Brummell clan feel towards their abandoning member is palpable in the group scenes where they all find themselves together, yet the family drama that ensues is perhaps the richest moments the film has to offer. There is a very real sense of what these people mean to each other (and the ways in which they’ve hurt/helped one another throughout their lives), and this familial drama is a particular dynamic that director Demme is keenly aware of and adept at portraying—he pulls this off well in another of his films, Rachel Getting Married, too.
Where the movie falters is in its musical aspirations. Streep is ever believably every iota of her all but entirely tragic character, and as in Mamma Mia, there is no doubt she certainly has the vocal ability to sing well and with gusto. But the scenes where she and the Flash are playing drag on far too long, often playing fully executed songs in their entirety. It slows the pace here and there allowing boredom to creep in. Though some of their covers, such as a particularly enjoyable rendition of the U2 classic, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” do make for some joyful sounds to hear. And as with any of her roles, Streep is simply a joy to behold, no matter what guise she takes on for our viewing pleasure.
3 out of 5 stars.