“I’m gonna tear all your walls down…” So belts Meryl Streep in Ricki and the Flash, and she ain’t kiddin’. The lyric from Bruce Springsteen’s “My Love Will Not Let You Down” serves as the film’s manifesto. That special brand of La Streep mugging—here applied to the character of a hot-mess bar-band deadbeat mom—will wear you into submission until nothing else seems to matter. Except that it should.
Sure, audiences out for pure diversion could do worse than Ricki, lazily scripted by Diablo Cody (Oscar winner for Juno) and directed by Jonathan Demme (Oscar winner for Silence of the Lambs). Clearly, the filmmakers count on you leaning in to Streep’s typically bravura performance while ignoring the emotionally nonsensical big picture, and perhaps that’s the best policy. But for anyone who dares take a step back for a little perspective…well, that way madness lies.
Once upon a time, Streep’s self-styled rock chick Ricki Rendazzo, frontwoman of the house band at Tarzana’s The Salt Well Bar & Lounge, was Indianapolis housewife Linda Brummel, hitched to Pete (Kevin Kline, in his third team-up with Streep) and mother to Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter), Josh (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate). Suburban escapee Ricki reluctantly responds to Pete’s distress call after the dissolution of Julie’s marriage and promptly begins making scenes (don’t get me started on how the Indianapolis populace apparently consists entirely of the worst stuffed shirts this side of Eustace Tilley). According to Pete and, soon enough, Ricki, the frazzled, angry, near-suicidal daughter needs her mother more than ever.
And so Ricki comes in like a wrecking ball to break the walls of her kids and show them she’s still the one, despite years of neglect and the ongoing presence of attentive stepmom Maureen (Audra McDonald) and caring dad Pete. In leatherwear, braided rock ‘do, and heavy eye makeup, Streep lifeforces Julie into submission amid reminders of maternal failure. We’re meant to take it on faith that, indeed, the better part of success is just showing up, but the suggestion that years of hurt and days of suicidal depression can be dismissed by a donut and a makeover (I wish I were kidding) is manifestly unconvincing and frankly offensive.
Ricki and the Flash exists, then, to exalt its star—in that she sings and plays guitar on umpteen rock songs—and to excuse Ricki’s supposedly funny foibles as she rediscovers her emotional responsibility to her kids, primarily by playing them rock songs. The latter point explains the choice of Demme, whose last studio picture was over a decade ago but whose resume includes numerous rock docs and concert films. Ricki’s conspicuously overqualified bar band the Flash consists of guitarist Rick Springfield (as Ricki’s boyfriend Greg), bassist Rick Rosas (who passed away last year), drummer Joe Vitale, and keyboardist Bernie Worrell.
Ricki and the Flash’s performances easily constitute the best element of this star vehicle, which gives up any remaining vestige of dramatic credibility in a wedding finale that encapsulates the film’s penchant for simultaneous egregiousness and brainless crowd-pleasing.