The first thing your correspondent did, after returning home from the media screening of the new Meryl Streep movie Ricki and the Flash, was watch its trailer again. It had been one of our most anticipated movies of the season, and for good reason; after all, it’s Streep starring in a Diablo Cody script under the direction of Jonathan Demme, with her two-time co-star Kevin Kline and real-life daughter Mamie Gummer adding to the attraction. And then came that trailer, which makes this collaboration between several spiky artists looks as bland and toothless as a Nancy Meyers film. Good thing it’s such a lousy representation of the movie they made.
The film opens with a nice little inside joke, as the titular musical group — a bar band fronted by Streep — performs Tom Petty’s “American Girl” (which played a key role in another Demme picture). They purvey passable covers and strained stage patter at a none-too-crowded watering hole in Tarzana at night; Ricki works as a checker in a Whole Foods-type store during the day. Neither half of the equation is quite the rock-and-roll dream she had in mind when she left her husband and three kids many years earlier. But then she gets a panicked call from her ex-husband (Kline, unsurprisingly wonderful) — her daughter (Gummer) has been left by her new husband, and she’s not taking it well. Maybe Ricki could fly out and lend a hand?
Demme hasn’t made a fiction film since 2008’s Rachel Getting Married, but as in that film, he shows a keen interest in bristling family dynamics (which again come to a head at a wedding). The beats of this story arrive pretty much as expected — in fact, Ricki is something like an older, softer, more self-aware variation on the antihero of Cody’s Young Adult, particularly when she makes a proclamation like, “If I show up there, something terrible will happen.”
Yet the character isn’t a schematic redemption avatar. Streep — who, and this goes without saying by this point, is totally convincing as a pretty-good musician — finds Ricki’s sprit, her regret, and her love, often all at once (a quiet scene of her performing an original song for her estranged daughter and ex-husband is one of the lovelier movie moments in recent memory). She’s also a Tea Party Republican, complete with a Gadsen flag/American flag tattoo across her back, and you keep waiting for a cheap punchline that never comes — it’s not a setup, just a part of her character, and a trait that makes for some interesting backstory (and commentary on a certain kind of “counterculture”). But she’s not buying all the way in to that crowd’s talking points, either; Streep’s single best scene comes after she returns to that Tarzana stage and gets off on a talking jag about the promiscuity of male rock stars (“Daddy can do whatever he wants… your kids will still respect and love you, ‘cause you’re the man”). It’s a terrific scene; it’s also loaded with subtext if you’re familiar with Streep’s biography, as she spent much of her early career taking great pains to insist she wasn’t sacrificing her kids for her career, waiting until more recent years to become the full-throated feminist she’s now celebrated as.
Ricki’s best moments come when Cody and Demme grasp on to the story’s sharp, prickly edges. While some of the verbal sparring is too on-the-nose, the scenes where the hostilities are just under the surface are bang-on. Gummer, pajama-clad, unwashed, and bitter, gleefully lights fires at a family dinner (“This shitshow is making my day,” she cackles); Kline remains a master at playing intense yet quiet discomfort. The trio partake of some pot in a set piece that’s on the longish side, but results in a moment where the ex-spouses’ long-buried attraction resurfaces, and must be handled carefully.
A lot of the movie is like that — indulgent and flabby, but with results. Demme, who has spent more of his late period doing concert movies than narrative features, gets a little slack in the musical numbers (I’m not quite sure we need to see a full performance of “Drift Away”), but by the end of the movie, he’s using them to convey more emotion and narrative advancement than the dialogue does. He lets the action get a touch too broad in spots, particularly the stares that greet Ricki at that climactic wedding, but which pay off in the crowd-pleasing ending. And it’s sort of refreshing that her two sons are ciphers; this is a story about women (as good as Kline and Rick Springfield, as Ricki’s current beau, are), and the last couple of interactions between Streep and Gummer are pure, shiny gold.
So it’s a messy picture, which is probably why its marketing is such a bummer — instead of celebrating a movie that’s flawed but unique, Sony’s trying to make it look like any other predictable Redemption Journey Narrative™. And, of course, they’re following the money; it’s a female-friendly release counter-programmed to the fanboy-courting Fantastic Four, and though spotlighting lines like, “Sometimes a girl just needs her mother” may make it seem like Nancy Meyers or Nora Ephron Lite, let’s not forget that It’s Complicated and Julie and Julia were two of Meryl’s biggest moneymakers, even if no one would confuse them with her best or most interesting work.
In her excellent study of Streep in the Anatomy of an Actor series, Karina Longworth writes, “Prada, Mamma, Julia, and It’s Complicated were all packaged blatantly as ‘chick flicks,’ which meant that some would dismiss them out of hand as silly or frivolous or cartoonish — but it also meant that they could pass as ‘mere’ entertainment, allowing them to smuggle their socially nutritive content in the wrapping of mass-commercial product. And yes, all of these films did have social value: they depicted types of women who exist in the real world, who, if not for Streep, would likely not be seen on-screen.” That’s clearly the playbook they’re working from with Ricki, whose twinkly ads take pains to exclude its more compelling thematic elements. But they’re there, and worth seeking out through the fog of the other stuff.
Ricki and the Flash is out Friday.