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A Flash of Streep

Tri-Star Pictures
 101 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Jonathan Demme 
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer 
Ricki and the Flash

Meryl Streep is a very talented singer, as evidenced by her performance in a few films like Mamma Mia. Meryl Streep is also the greatest actress of her generation, as evidenced by her performances in far too many films to list here. So, a movie like Ricki and the Flash, that deprives Streep of an opportunity to really sink her chops into the role of a mother who’s trying to reconnect with the family she abandoned years before for a singing career has to rank as a disappointment. That’s especially true here when, as in the fictional storyline, Ricki abandons the carefully set up family dynamic in favor of showing Streep fronting a very good bar band.


The band in question is the Flash, headliners at a third-rate small town California saloon. In addition to Ricki Randazzo (Streep), the band includes her boyfriend Greg (crooner Rick Springfield), base player Buster (the late Rick Rosas, who worked with Neil Young and many others), drummer Joe (Joe Vitale of the Eagles) and keyboardist Billy (Bernie Worrell from Parliament-Funkadelic). Years earlier, Ricki was Linda Brummer, an Indianapolis housewife who abandoned her husband and three kids to go to L.A. and seek what proved to be a less-than-successful musical career. Now, she works as a grocery store cashier days and does covers of oldies like “American Girl” before a handful of regulars at the bar at night.


Ricki’s departure left its marks on her family though, a family she’s barely seen in two decades. So, she’s quite surprised when ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) asks her to return to help out their daughter Julie (Streep’s real life daughter, Mamie Gummer). Julie’s been extremely depressed since her own husband cheated and abandoned her for his girlfriend, and Pete hopes Mom’s presence might help. 


Ricki’s job isn’t made easier by the fact that her family resents her departure. In addition to Julie, gay son Adam (Nick Westrate) is still angry with her and younger son Josh (Sebastian Stan) didn’t invite her to his wedding because he didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of his fiancee’s somewhat snooty family. And, just when Ricki starts making inroads, at least with Julie, Pete’s second wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) returns from an out-of-town trip and is none too happy.


Screenwriter Diablo Cody based the character of Ricki on her own mother-in-law and actually constructed an interesting set of family members around her. The cast has a lot of fun in their roles, with Kline and Streep deftly playing off each other. A sequence in which the two, along with Julie, smoke some pot, and Greg shows there’s still some spark between them has just the right semi-serious touch. Streep only has one scene with her sons, though, a disastrous family dinner at a swanky restaurant that quickly turns into a wild verbal free-for-all.


Despite the good beginning, Cody and director Jonathan Demme apparently couldn’t figure out a way to resolve the predicament in which Ricki finds herself. So, the movie comes to a crashing halt the morning after the potfest, when Maureen shows up and lays down the law. She has it out wirh Ricki (who’s just emerged from a shower) in a scene that’s most memorable for the sight of Streep with an enormous American flag tattooed on her back. The scene ends with Ricki flying back to California to lick her wounds and the story, for all effects and purposes, flying along with her.


Of course, the movie has another 45 minutes to go at this point, and director Jonathan Demme, who’s directed his share of musical documentaries, knows how to fill the void with music. So we get Ricki and the Flash performing a number of classic rock hits, including “Drift Away” and “Wooly Bully.” And then we get a conveniently tacked on lesson about the healing power of music. Since Demme’s assembled a pretty powerful group of artists on his set, the results aren’t too bad.


Still, while the last 45 minutes of Ricki and the Flash are about as good as audiences have a right to expect from Meryl Streep the singer, they are a far cry from what they have come to expect from Meryl Streep the actress. In addition, Kline, McDonald, Gummer, and the rest are again left offscreen for most of that time while what passes for drama in the movie consists of Streep and Springfield playing kiss and make up after an obligatory quarrel. The most interesting characters in this part of the movie are actually the bizarre set of bar regular extras who show up in the audience night after night, including a guy in a wheelchair, some dancing fools, and a fat guy wearing Elvis’ leftover pompadour. I got the feeling that Demme could have made a fascinating movie about them.


I don’t want to give away the ending of Ricki and the Flash other than to say it’s a complete copout. Demme and Cody apparently decided to give the audience what they think viewers wanted rather than a dramatically consistent finale. In fact, there’s no consistency whatsoever in the ending of Ricki since her entire family simply vanishes from sight for far too long, only to take a bow at the end.


I honestly can’t conceive of any material that Cody might have written to allow the family drama to play out that would have elevated this movie, or Streep’s performance, into Oscar territory. However, I’m sure she and Demme could have come up with something that would have allowed the cast to run with it, and it’s likely the ending would have matched the sharp wit of the restaurant scene. The ending of Ricki and the Flash isn’t a disaster; it’s perfectly adequate and very easy on the ears at least. However, perfectly adequate isn’t a term that should be used in connection with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline when they’re given any sort of material whatsoever to work with. Ricki and the Flash ends up as simply a flash in the pan.

Read other reviews of Ricki and the Flash:


Ricki and the Flash (2015) on IMDb