A typical entry with an atypical provenance, Ricki and the Flash is an attempt by Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody to make a comfy family comedy for the older crowd. It’s not the nicest fit for either of them, but it’s way more interesting than Woman in Gold and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies and other stuff that gets foisted onto that segment of the audience.
Meryl Streep portrays Linda “Ricki” Rendazzo, who works days as an organic supermarket checkout clerk and nights as the lead singer of the house band at a sports bar in Tarzana, covering everything from “Wooly Bully” to “Bad Romance.” That’s her life until she gets a distress call from Pete (Kevin Kline), the ex-husband in Indianapolis whom she walked out on decades earlier to pursue her rock ’n’ roll dreams. Their daughter Julie (played by Streep’s real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer) has imploded after her husband ditched her for another woman, and Pete’s overwhelmed by the fallout.
Sullen, angry Julie gives the early proceedings a jolt, and Cody’s writing is sharpest when the razor blades come out, like at a family reunion dinner at a fancy restaurant, where a pajama-clad Julie pounds white wine and lashes out at everyone, including herself. The same goes for a conversation at a coffee shop when Julie reveals her suicide attempt to Ricki, which turns confrontational when a guy overhearing at the next table (Bill Irwin) pissily tells her to take her insignificant problems elsewhere.
The movie loses its balance when Ricki returns to California and Julie fades into the background. The story is supposed to be about how Ricki rejoins the family that she abandoned so long ago, but despite Demme and Cody’s efforts, it feels a couple of shades too easy. Julie’s brothers (Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate) are badly integrated into the story, and the wedding climax only reminds you that Demme went over this ground in Rachel Getting Married and plumbed much greater depths.
For all its flaws, this is the best vehicle Streep has had in years. Most of this performance is in her singing, and if you compare her raspy vocals here with the clean Broadway sound she had in Into the Woods, you’ll be amazed by the contrast. She makes Ricki sound like she’s been at that bar for the last 20 years, knocking back beers between sets. Her venture into the audience during her version of “Let’s Work Together” shows Ricki’s sheer joy in performing, while a blissful cover of “Drift Away” is set off by a plot development when Ricki discovers her true love. The climactic number “My Love Will Not Let You Down” is a hit, but nothing in the movie is more mesmerizing than the quiet scene when Ricki sits down with just Pete and Julie in his living room and performs “Cold One,” a terrific original number penned by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice. These songs and the hard edges underneath generate enough goodwill to make Ricki and the Flash an engaging piece of entertainment.
[box_info]Ricki and the Flash
Starring Meryl Streep and Mamie Gummer. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Written by Diablo Cody. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]