“Ricki and the Flash” is a conventional mix of two familiar movie genres. One is a musical drama about one aging rocker encountering what is probably the second chance for her messy life, and the other one is a family drama about old resentment and possible reconciliation. While the result is not as good as we can expect from a group of impressive talents assembled for the movie, it is mildly entertaining in spite of its weak story and characterization, and you can easily pass some time with it as long as you do not expect much from it.
Meryl Streep, who again delivers another commendable performance to be added to her great career, plays Linda “Ricki” Rendazzo, a middle-aged lady who still does not give up her dream despite her struggling status in life and career. While she released her first album a long time ago, her music career in California has been virtually going nowhere since that, and she barely supports herself by working at a local supermarket when she and her band do not perform at a local bar during many evenings. She and Greg (Rick Springfield) and other band members mostly play others’ songs as demanded, but they have a good time together during their routine gigs, and this spunky lady surely knows how to excite and entertain her audiences.
On one day, she receives a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline), who has remained in Indianapolis since Linda left him and their children for pursuing her career. He married again not long after their divorce, and he and his new wife provided a stable home environment for Pete and Linda’s three children, who grew up without much contact with their mother. Their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) attempted suicide shortly after the sudden early end of her marriage, and Pete calls for the help from his ex-wife mainly because his wife is currently in Seattle for attending her sick father.
While understandably reluctant, Linda agrees to go to Indianapolis, and Pete lets his ex-wife stay at his big, luxurious suburban house which certainly looks like another world to her. Still feeling lousy about her husband’s betrayal, Julie is angry and sullen in her depressed state, and Linda’s first encounter with her daughter after many years of separation is not so pleasant to say the least. In case of her other children, Joshua (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate) do not welcome their mother either, and that leads to a very awkward moment when Joshua and his girlfriend happen to have a restaurant dinner with his family including Linda and Julie.
Despite the frictions between them, Linda eventually finds a way to reach to her daughter, and, not so surprisingly, Julie slowly starts to pull up herself through her mother’s little help. While there are still bad feelings between them, Julie begins to look less moody as spending more time with her mother, and we get a warm, funny scene later when they and Pete relax themselves a bit through a bag of marijuana he has stashed in a refrigerator.
Instead of further developing their recovering relationship after this point, the screenplay by Diablo Cody, which was partially inspired by Cody’s real-life mother-in-law, goes into an autopilot mode unfortunately, and it never recovers from it. Around the end of its second act, the movie introduces an artificial conflict necessary for the third act, and Audra McDonald, a six-time Tony winner who has been known well for her notable stage works in Broadway, is wasted as a character who is more or less than a plot device. The third act, which involves with Joshua’s wedding ceremony, is predictable to the core as trudging toward the expected feel-good ending, and I came to miss more the director Jonathan Demme’s previous film “Rachel Getting Married” (2008), which was full of characters far more real than the characters of “Ricki and the Flash”.
Although the movie continues to falter, Meryl Streep holds it with considerable energy and spirit (Seriously, can we possibly expect anything less than that from her?). When I recently watched “Postcards from the Edge” (1990), I was particularly impressed by its highlight scene where Streep gave a spirited performance of its Oscar-nominated song “I’m Checking Out” as spreading fun and excitement around others (she was also Oscar-nominated for that film, by the way), and the band performance scenes in “Ricki and the Flash” are as vibrant as that moment thanks to Streep and Demme. Always masterfully committed in her performance, Streep makes the rocky development of Linda’s relationship with her daughter believable and engaging, and Mamie Gummer, who is incidentally Streep’s real-life daughter, holds her own place well in spite of her rather underdeveloped character.
In case of the other actors in the film, most of them fill their respective roles without much impression. Kevin Kline, who made his film debut when he played along with Streep in “Sophie’s Choice” (1982), gives a neutral performance as a decent man who still has some feelings toward a woman he once loved, and Rick Springfield, who has been known more for his music career, has his own moments as Linda’s fellow band member who has been in love with her but frustrated to see her being not very serious about their, uh, bedroom relationship. He and Streep and the other actors playing the band members in the film feel authentic on their stage, and maybe the movie should have focused more on the shabby daily life their characters keep moving on with like troupers.
While he has mostly been remembered for his Oscar-winning films “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and “Philadelphia” (1993), Demme made other good films including “Melvin and Howard” (1980), “Something Wild” (1986), “Married to the Mob” (1988), and “Rachel Getting Married”, and they all bounce with each own flavor and personality to charm and engage us. Although it has several nice moments to enjoy along with its pleasant lightweight mood, “Ricki and the Flash” feels a little too plain on the whole compared to the previous works by Demme or Cody, who made a terrific debut with her immensely colorful Oscar-winning work “Juno” (2007). Anyway, we can at least appreciate how a magnificent actress like Streep lifts her movie one or two levels above from the level of mediocrity where it is stuck. She does rock, you know.