There are very few actresses who can truly carry a motion picture in the way that Meryl Streep can carry a motion picture. The problem, and I believe that Streep would agree with this, is that she shouldn't have to carry a motion picture.
Meryl Streep carries Ricki and the Flash and the film suffers greatly because of it.
There are times I find myself watching a Meryl Streep film and wondering to myself "What possibly motivated her to make this film?" She-Devil is a terrific example. What was there about She-Devil that made one of Hollywood's critically acclaimed and otherwise intelligent actresses say "I want to make this comedy with Roseanne?"
Heck, I still wonder about that one.
I suppose I can see reasons why Streep, whose bathroom grunting frequently warrants an Academy Award nomination, would tackle Ricki and the Flash, another film that gives her a chance to sing while also offering up the chance to work with daughter Mamie Gummer and two-time co-star Kevin Kline among others. I mean, maybe she's just always had a desire to work with director Jonathan Demme or, hey, it's even possible she saw something in Diablo Cody's script.
Okay, that last one was a joke.
The truth is that just about everything that is wrong with Ricki and the Flash can be traced back to Cody, who snagged attention with her debut script Juno but who has struggled to create anything even remotely watchable, with the modest exception of Young Adult, ever since. As is nearly always the case for Streep, she finds aspects of Ricki's character that Cody didn't bother to write - likely because she was too busy creating unnecessary plot lines and paper thin characters.
Streep plays Ricki Rendazzo, who left Indianapolis and her husband and children behind years earlier to chase rock n' roll dreams in Los Angeles. Ricki never quite achieved those dreams of rock n' roll stardom, instead working part-time in a retail gig while fronting a cover band with bandmate and bed mate Greg (former teen and soap heartthrob Rick Springfield). When her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) calls with news of daughter Julie's fallen apart marriage and downward spiral into depression and suicidal thoughts, Ricki agrees to return home to the maternal role she had long ago left behind.
If you've ever watched a film in your life, then you can probably already find yourself shrugging your shoulders and thinking to yourself "God, it sounds dreadful."
The good news is that Ricki and the Flash isn't dreadful. It is cliche'd. It is predictable. It is cheery and happy in the most inauthentic of ways. It is filled with way too many people having way too many histrionic conflicts.
Yet, somehow, it's not dreadful.
The truth is that there are a handful of performers who make nearly everything they do better. Streep is one of these performers. She can help turn a good script into a great film, an average script into a good film, a disappointing script into a watchable film, and even a completely godawful script into a film that's worth watching if only for Streep. Diablo Cody's script for Ricki and the Flash isn't godawful, though it's by far the weakest aspect of a film that features strong performances from both Streep and Gummer so many bar rock cover songs that you'll likely find yourself wishing you'd picked up a six-pack of PBR on the way to the movie theater.
If you've learned anything about Streep over the years it should be that she's willing to completely immerse herself in a character's authenticity, an authenticity that isn't always exactly what you expect or want to see. Remember her Oscar-nominated turn in August: Osage County? It was an uncomfortable, unappealing and squirm-inducingly raw performance that was exactly what anyone who knows the play would have expected from the performance. Unfortunately, the rest of America left the film unimpressed.
Quite simply, they were wrong.
In Ricki and the Flash, Streep does it again. While I can't fathom an Oscar nomination this time around, Streep again crafts a realistic character of a woman whose voice reflects the harsh reality much like the rest of her life - never quite good enough. While there's arguably too much music here, Streep's performance is so winning and spirited that it's hard to picture most moviegoers not leaving the film satisfied even if that satisfaction is likely to quickly dissipate. Director Jonathan Demme has made much better films, but he's also made much worse films.
While Streep has never made an unwatchable film, the sad truth for the actress is that her career has reached the point where even an average film is considered a disappointment. Indianapolis is featured prominently in the film, though given Hoosier government's lack of devotion to the film industry it's once again safe to say that the Indianapolis scenes were shot elsewhere despite the fact that Streep does have, in real life, family in Indianapolis.
For some, Ricki and the Flash will work best with its mostly stripped down cover songs during which Streep serves up a sort of folkie/lite rock persona that is spirited, joy-filled and completely in her element even if her career trajectory didn't quite go as planned. For others, the film will work best during the scenes when Streep's Ricki is face-to-face with estranged daughter Julie, played by Streep's real life daughter Mamie Gummer. It can't be easy growing up in the shadow of a Hollywood icon, and while Gummer isn't quite ready to knock of Oscar's door she does get better with each performance and there's a natural chemistry here that gives their scenes the honesty that one could only wish the rest of the film had.
Kevin Kline is under-utlilized yet never less than engaging as Streep's ex, while Rick Springfield plays down his own rock star ways and even allows himself to show off a whole lotta gray hair in the process. Springfield, currently featured on television's True Detective, has always projected a sort of accessibility that plays well here alongside Streep. It's reported that Streep learned her guitar playing from both Springfield and Neil Young, and while her ability to sing isn't news her performance here will still likely surprise most moviegoers.
I suspect that most writers will spend most of Ricki and the Flash rolling their eyes, though I also suspect that most Streep fans will leave the film happy while acknowledging it's not one of her best films. There are worse things to do in life than accept a film project for the opportunity to work with your daughter - that includes even working on yet another Diablo Cody misfire.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic