Meryl Streep Hits Rock Bottom in 'Ricki and the Flash'

The feted actor gets to live out her rock 'n' roll fantasies in a disappointing and surprisingly conservative family comedy-drama from Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme.

AP

Ricki and the Flash Directed by Jonathan Demme; written by Diablo Cody; with Meryl Streep, Rick Springfield, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate, Hailey Gates, Ben Platt, Charlotte Rae

Any new film by director Jonathan Demme arouses my curiosity, mainly thanks to his early movies – 1980’s “Melvin and Howard” (his best movie to date), as well as “Something Wild” (1986), “Married to the Mob” (1988) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), for which he won an Academy Award. But ever since 1993’s AIDS drama “Philadelphia” – an effective and perhaps historically significant work – Demme has not made many features, working mainly on documentaries and as a television producer. The handful of features he has made since then have been disappointing, and that’s again the case in “Ricki and the Flash.” It’s his first collaboration with Meryl Streep, who attacks the role of a failed, ex-rock singer with predictable gusto.

Demme has always been drawn to music. His early work is filled with musical numbers, often featuring ethnic characters who aren’t related to the central plot. Music is also the frequent subject of his documentaries, like the excellent “Stop Making Sense” (1984), which focused on a Talking Heads concert. Streep also has an affinity to music: she’s quite a versatile singer, as she’s already demonstrated in “Postcards from the Edge” (1990), “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006), Robert Altman’s poignant last movie, and last year’s “Into the Woods.” She’s never sung rock in a movie before, though, and except for one scene in which she performs a song that her character wrote, all of her singing here is cover versions of songs by Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and others.

Problematic plot

I am not qualified to say whether Streep is persuasive as a rock singer – although I found her more convincing than Barbra Streisand in 1976’s “A Star is Born” – but she seems to enjoy her time onstage in the movie. Demme lets her sing quite a lot, and I would guess that if she and Demme could have reduced the plot any further, she’d be singing even more.

But “Ricki and the Flash” does have a plot, and that’s where the problems begin. Streep plays Linda, who changed her name to Ricki when she left her three children and husband Pete (Kevin Kline), and traveled from Indianapolis to Los Angeles to pursue her rock-star dreams. Although she recorded one album, stardom never materialized. Now she works as a supermarket cashier by day and performs at a club in the evenings with her band, The Flash, whose lead guitarist, Greg (Rick Springfield, once a teen idol himself, cast here in a sympathetic role), is in love with her despite their supposed age difference (in real life, both actors were born in 1949). Ricki, however, has what pop psychologists like to call “commitment issues.”

The main plot twist arrives when Pete informs Ricki that their daughter, Julie (Streep’s real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer, appearing for the first time as her screen daughter), tried to kill herself after her husband left her for another woman. Julie has moved in with her father to recover, and Pete believes Ricki – despite previously walking out on her daughter – might be able to help. It’s really not clear why. Maybe Pete, a kind man who has forgiven his ex-wife, believes that the choices she made, with their feminist implications, could help Julie.

Pete calls in Ricki because his second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), who raised Ricki’s children, is out of town. When she comes back, she turns out to be kind of bitchy, ordering Ricki back to Los Angeles – Pete, who is supposedly still in love with Ricki, is too weak to object – even though Julie has benefitted from her mother’s presence. (Actually, she recuperates so quickly that the process seems hard to believe; perhaps she was not as badly off as her father believed, even if she did refuse to eat or shower, and tried to kill herself.) The casting of African-American actor McDonald highlights Demme’s preference to make his movies ethnically diverse.

Then there are Ricki’s two sons: Josh (Sebastian Stan) is forgiving toward his mother, even though his obnoxious fiancée, Emily (Hailey Gates), refuses to invite her to their wedding; Adam (Nick Westrate), who is gay – because every movie like this must have a gay character – refuses to let her into his life, though. Ricki returns to Los Angeles, but a Hollywood film can’t let an American family remain fragmented, especially a movie as conservative as this one.

Impersonations

I don’t know what Demme’s own political views are, but one of the movie’s few surprising aspects is that Ricki, despite her life choices and career, is a Republican with the U.S. flag tattooed on her back. She voted for George W. Bush and hates Barack Obama (a proportion of the Israeli public will be able to identify with that aspect of her character, even though the movie does not put it to good use).

“Ricki and the Flash” was written by Diablo Cody, who won an Academy Award in 2008 for another conservative movie, “Juno.” But the screenplay here is poor, choosing solutions that are too easy and schematic. All we’re left with is Streep, who at this point in her career apparently wants to show she can play anyone imaginable – from chef Julia Child and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to a rock singer (she will play Emmeline Pankhurst in her next movie, “Suffragette”). This talented actor’s career is becoming a catalog of impersonations: here we get Streep with long blond hair, some of it braided (you may wince when you see it).

The last time I felt respect for Streep’s work was in the fashion comedy “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), and I miss her early performances in “The Deer Hunter” (1978), “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981) and “Silkwood” (1983). She already had a knack for impersonation then, but kept it in check, without the showiness of her more recent roles.

Other than the chance to see Streep sing rock ’n’ roll with all the clichéd quirks of a rock performer (perhaps Demme is trying to say that Ricki is just an imitation of a rock singer, not the real thing), “Ricki and the Flash” is a trivial movie. It does possess the typical energy of a Demme film, but everything connecting the musical numbers is forced and superficial.