Ricki and the Flash is a humane family drama, warm and sympathetic, and without easy answers or cheap dramatics. It’s low-stakes and character-centric, attuned to relationships shifting slowly, in which an emotionally constipated family’s mostly buried grievances burble up and quiet back down again. When the credits roll, there’s no simple sense of closure. I don’t think this family has fully reconciled their disagreements, but I do believe they’re a little closer to happy than they were at the movie’s start. It’s comfortable mainstream entertainment smart about the way big life changes happen not through momentous milestones, but through small decisions that recalibrate mood and intention. Some of the characters are vaguely defined, and the ending is rushed, but there’s a solid center.
The film’s mostly focused on Ricki (Meryl Streep), a intermittently rude, barely solvent rocker who long ago was poised to be a Big Deal. Now she’s working in a grocery store by day, playing in a bar band, The Flash, by night. Decades earlier she left her husband (Kevin Kline) and children behind in the Midwest to pursue her rock and roll dreams in California. Ever since she’s been on the periphery of their lives, watching from afar as they’ve moved on while dreams of stardom passed her by. We see her getting some enjoyment out of playing with the band, filling a bar with the sounds of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” in the opening scene. But next, with a sarcastic look to her bandmate/hookup (Rick Springfield), she reluctantly launches into “Bad Romance,” tweaking her set in an obviously ill fitting attempt to stay relevant. An opportunity to regain her relevance as far as her family is concerned comes in the form of a bad-news phone call.
Her ex tells her their daughter (Streep’s actual daughter Mamie Gummer) is getting divorced, the husband having cheated. This left the young woman understandably distraught, so in flies Ricki to bring a mother’s touch to loosening depression. This causes all sorts of long-settled feelings of resentment, abandonment, and inadequacy to get unsettled once more. Ricki’s a source of well-intentioned messiness, an uneasy fit with a straight-laced family that has thrived without her. Though fighting, her daughter and ex find themselves reluctantly drawn into her charisma, while her other children (Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate) and their stepmom (Audra McDonald) find themselves drawn into testy discussions. The family’s dynamics are sketched in with patient blocking and lengthy shots that breathe with the sweetly barbed dialogue.
Director Jonathan Demme is attuned to the hurt feelings behind their conflicts. But he’s most acutely aware of the issues of class at play. Ricki, a leather-wearing, heavily made-up bar singer, is on the precipice of declaring bankruptcy. She could barely afford the plane ticket. Meanwhile her bourgeois polos-and-khakis ex-husband’s incredibly successful job has gotten him a mansion so deluxe establishing shots could’ve been filmed at a golf resort. This contextualizes feelings, but Demme doesn’t denigrate any character or their position. No one is in the right, or in the wrong. He brings a collaborative spirit, allowing the actors a relaxed rhythm. It doesn’t have the snap of his early comedies (like 1986’s Something Wild) or the ensemble depth of his most recent family drama (2008’s Rachel Getting Married), but it has a comfortable feeling despite a screenplay that treats everyone as background to Ricki’s narrative.
Supporting characters are thinly developed, but filled with such pleasant, instantly appealing, performances. So good with what little they’re given, I wished Kline, Gummer, McDonald, and Springfield had more. They’re solid presences holding down predictable arcs, the better to draw attention to the character work Streep’s doing, I suppose. Screenwriter Diablo Cody shows fine detail in filling out Ricki’s life and the effect her decisions had on those around her, but also the ways in which she’s held to a double standard based on her gender. Cody’s writing typically shows a sharp observation of women’s lives. In Juno, Jennifer’s Body, and Young Adult we see specificity in varieties of female experience beyond typical Hollywood fare. That’s what’s best about Ricki and the Flash, in the end a small, sentimental, and even slight comic drama that isn’t nearly as interesting as an ideal confluence of its three main talents. (Demme, Cody, and Streep have all been better.) But it has a warm affection, inclusive and quiet, that puts it in a cozy place multiplex fare all too rarely finds. When Ricki steps on stage, able to express through her covers what she can't as herself, it hits all the right notes.