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Meryl Streep adds rhythm guitarist and rock-band frontwoman to her list of accomplishments, handling both with born-to-it panache in Ricki and the Flash. The musical sequences are the comic drama’s most persuasive elements. That’s no surprise, given director Jonathan Demme’s affinity for the art form, well evidenced in landmark documentaries like Stop Making Sense. It’s a testament, too, to his undying faith in the curative power of rock ’n’ roll.
Like the cover band at its center, the story of a convention-defying woman’s redemption in the eyes of her family plays to the center in its aim to please. The screenplay by Diablo Cody doesn’t cut as deep as it might, yet its combination of the glib and the bittersweet, as filtered through Demme’s earnest lens, is sure to connect with audiences — especially older viewers eager to see the star mixing it up with her real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer, and ’80s poster boy Rick Springfield. But even with its well-observed moments, the movie’s nonmusical interactions, whether reaching for laughs or poignancy, too often feel flat and forced.
The narrative contrivance is shakiest at the story’s center. An offscreen suicide attempt is the unconvincing plot engine that brings Streep’s Ricki (née Linda) Rendazzo from Los Angeles to Indianapolis, the place where she was once a wife and full-time mother. A musician who scrapes together a living, more or less, as a supermarket cashier, she’s summoned by her ex, Pete (Kevin Kline), a gentle and tentative man who’s at a loss to help their daughter, Julie (Gummer), despondent after the sudden end of her marriage.
In her rocker duds, Ricki arrives penniless at Pete’s gated community. She’s a middle-aged variation on a fairy-tale heroine, an experienced innocent in a strange land. Streep navigates the discomfort zone beautifully, suggesting not just the wide-eyed unease of a bankrupt woman stepping into a McMansion, but also the confidence of someone who, on her own turf, can handle a crowd with a cool assurance that brings to mind Bonnie Raitt.
Ricki and the four-man Flash are the house band at a San Fernando Valley bar where the bartender (Ben Platt) is one of the few people under 40. Between Boomer-friendly covers, her stage patter with smitten lead guitarist Greg (Springfield) has lately taken on a personal edge, the commitment-phobic Ricki doing her offhandedly cruel best to keep him at arm’s length. Even when their characters are at odds, the two actors click onstage. Offstage is another matter. A turning point between them is one of many moments that Demme overplays.
Much of the movie’s strain lies in the thinness of its supporting characters, particularly Ricki’s two sons, who like Julie are leery of a woman who left them in order to pursue her musical dream. Sebastian Stan (the Winter Soldier in Captain America) plays the more forgiving of the two, although he and his uptight fiancée (Hailey Gates) have no intention of inviting Ricki to their wedding. The outright hostile Adam (Nick Westrate) is equally lacking in dimension.
But amid the pat differences between Ricki and the Indianans, Cody and Demme slyly upend stereotypes. Beneath her leather jacket, Ricki sports an American flag tattoo and votes Republican. And while the film does its utmost to signal that Pete’s second wife, Maureen — whose plot-necessity absence during Julie’s crisis instigates his call to Ricki — is a typical country-club Caucasian, she turns out to be Audra McDonald.
Her House Beautiful perfectionism notwithstanding, Maureen is tough-minded and anything but cartoonish. The two women’s climactic confrontation hits things rather squarely on the head, but Streep and McDonald find the right notes of passive aggression.
Not counting Gummer’s debut as a toddler in Heartburn, this is the first film in which she and Streep share scenes. They create a frayed but hopeful connection. Although she’s required to enter the action at a fever pitch of belligerence, Gummer ratchets down the shrillness to let Julie’s pain surface in dark bursts of anger. Spending her first few scenes as an unwashed wreck with a frightening bedhead, Julie’s convincingly indifferent to everything but her own suffering.
As she demonstrated in A Prairie Home Companion, Mamma Mia! and Into the Woods, Streep is a strong and joyful singer. Here she also holds her own as an instrumentalist with a quartet of pros, including veteran sidemen Bernie Worrell, Joe Vitale and bassist Rick Rosas, a frequent Neil Young collaborator who died not long after the film wrapped, and to whom it’s dedicated. Recorded live and dynamically shot by DP Declan Quinn, the musical performances have a vividness and energy that’s missing elsewhere.
In Stuart Wurtzel’s production design and the costumes by Ann Roth, the opposing forces in Ricki’s life are clearly expressed: dark bar and brightly lit day job; tiny L.A. apartment and the spacious Indiana home where another woman has raised her children. Left to face the choices she’s made, Ricki ultimately gets to save the day while staying true to herself. That might feel like a cheat if not for Streep’s unapologetic portrait of a woman who refuses to be defeated.
Production companies: TriStar Pictures, LStar Capital, Badwill Entertainment
Cast: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt, Charlotte Rae, Nick Westrate, Hailey Gates, Bernie Worrell, Joe Vitale, Rick Rosas, Bill Irwin
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenwriter: Diablo Cody
Producers: Marc Platt, Gary Goetzman, Diablo Cody, Mason Novick
Executive producers: Ron Bozman, Adam Siegel, Lorene Scafaria, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Declan Quinn
Production designer: Stuart Wurtzel
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Editor: Wyatt Smith
Casting directors: Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield
Rated PG-13, 102 minutes
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