Meryl Streep is a national treasure, and one of the greatest screen actresses who has ever lived. She is a constantly charmingly chameleon who can seduce the audience even with her most despicable characters. However, her charisma and talent aren’t enough to make her latest feature, Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash, more than a trifling, unpolished affair whose best aspect is some vague statements about motherhood and forgiveness. Diablo Cody’s script lacks the screenwriter’s bite, and Demme’s sleepy direction coasts on his lead actress’ talent, expecting her to work miracles with next to nothing beyond some rock oldies and some nice, greeting card sentiments.
Ricki (Streep) and her band, The Flash, work at a bar in California, and she pays the bills working as a cashier at an upscale grocery store. She receives a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) informing her that their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) is in the throws of depression due to her marriage falling apart. Ricki flies to Indiana to console her estranged daughter, and the two try to slowly repair their bond. However, Ricki learns that the price of following her dream to become a rock star may have cost her too much.
The notion that following your dream and sacrificing everything for it only to fail is Ricki and the Flash’s most interesting concept, but it never really follows through because it gets caught up in the mawkishness of the family healing. Cody and Demme are intrigued by how society’s demands of a mother against her career can play out, but they don’t want to invest in the complexity or the emotional weight of that unfair expectation. Instead, they just have Ricki, in one of her many outbursts during her shows, just editorialize how the only reason she’s rejected for following her career is because she’s supposed to be a mother first and foremost. Rather than dig into the meat of this societal double standard, Ricki and the Flash prefers emotional blow-ups that ring hollow.
It feels like everyone involved got hung up on the ideas in the script rather than the execution. It wants to build on a mother-daughter story, but the second half of the film sends Ricki back to L.A. and away from Julie, so Ricki can learn the healing power of music and also pick up some wisdom from her boyfriend/guitarist, Greg (Rick Springfield). It’s almost like watching two different movies linked by a rough sketch of a character that only Meryl Streep could bring to life because she’s Meryl Streep.
In the hands of a lesser actress, Ricki is just a caricature, and even Streep struggles to surmount odd touches like Ricki’s neo-conservative beliefs that are used for off-hand jokes as opposed to any serious shading. The movie always skates between real emotional connection and wanting goofball moments, and so the emotional stakes constantly feel dishonest as a result despite the strong performance from Streep, Kline, and Audra McDonald, who plays Pete’s wife Maureen, who did the actual childrearing.
The scene between Ricki and Maureen where they have a pointed conversation about their roles in the family is a glimpse at a far better, more sophisticated film. It’s a brutal scene where Ricki is forced to reckon at what she gave up and what she is and isn’t entitled to as a birth mother. Streep and McDonald are electric together, and the scene packs an emotional punch that’s largely absent from the rest of the movie.
It’s a shame that Ricki and the Flash is more interested in its golden oldies rock songs, and doesn’t have the fortitude to delve into a protagonist that could have provided an insightful look at the cost of following your dreams, especially if you’re a woman. Instead, everyone involved just seems to be having a nice time and proud that they even acknowledged what could have been a far more interesting and lively story. Streep, Cody, and Demme are so much better than this shallow, discordant tune.