Like David Bowie joining Bing Crosby for a medley of Christmas carols, “Ricki and the Flash” combines a number of promising elements that don’t seem to have any business being anywhere near each other, though the disconnect exerts a strange appeal all its own. Offering half an acerbic family dramedy (from screenwriter Diablo Cody, in “Young Adult” mode), and half a Jonathan Demme-directed concert pic that just happens to feature Meryl Streep as the frontwoman, this is a shaggy, easily distractible film that consistently defies expectations to both charming and baffling effect. Whether audiences will know what to make of it is an open question — if the actual film is a collision of several clashing tones, its trailer introduces a different one entirely — though acolytes of the Cult of Meryl could rally some support at the box office.
Streep bravely courts, and often achieves, ridiculousness in the lead role as Ricki Rendazzo (a.k.a. Linda Brummell), a sixtysomething failed rock star. In between stints working the register at a Whole Foods-esque yuppie-mart, Ricki fronts a Tarzana bar band who’ve recently been forced to broaden their repertoire from ’70s AOR standards to the likes of Lady Gaga and Pink.
The band sounds pretty great — and well it should, with the late Neil Young collaborator Rick Rosas on bass, Parliament-Funkadelic’s synth-pioneer Bernie Worrell on keyboards and Rick Springfield on lead guitar — but Ricki’s personal life is torn and frayed. She’s eternally broke; she’s afraid to commit to her bandmate-boyfriend, Greg (Springfield); and it’s been years since she’s spoken to her three adult children, whom she ditched long ago to chase stardom in California. (Despite her flower-child-gone-leather demeanor and copious Janis jewelry, she’s also an Obama-hating Republican with the Gadsden flag tattooed on her back, a detail that feels nicely attuned to classic rock radio’s shifting demographics.)
One day, Ricki gets a call from her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline, a vision of oddly serene punctiliousness in resplendent sweater vests), who tells her that their daughter, Julie (Streep scion Mamie Gummer), is on the verge of both a divorce and a psychic breakdown, refusing to shower or change out of her pajamas. Ricki jets off to Indiana to visit, though she can’t pay for the cab or a hotel, and crashes in Pete’s gated-community mansion while his new wife (Audra McDonald) is away.
Julie responds to her mother’s re-emergence with a mixture of scorn and cautious optimism, while Ricki’s youngest son, Adam (Nick Westrate), needles her about her unevolved attitude toward homosexuality, and older son Josh (Sebastian Stan) tries to be diplomatic while secretly hoping to avoid inviting her to his upcoming wedding to an uptight environmentalist (Hailey Gates). These domestic scenes are vintage Cody, cluttered with arch banter that hits and misses in equal measure, yet adroitly exacting in tracing the precise degrees of tension that are applied and relieved with each snippy exchange.
Gradually, Julie and Ricki start to make up for lost time, while Pete begins to feel some stirrings for his ex, and both threads come to an amiably low-key head when the three break into Pete’s pot stash. Then the arrival of Pete’s wife abruptly breaks the spell, sapping narrative momentum along the way. Ricki heads back to California, and the film begins spinning its wheels for an extended period, switching the focus to Ricki and Greg’s rather blase romance, with one long musical number after another pulling the film further and further away from wherever it had been ever so gradually heading.
The pic gathers itself together well enough to stage a blowout climax, throwing all of its disparate elements into a big Bollywoodish blender (there’s even a group dance number), but once the credits roll, it’s hard to pin down exactly what story the filmmakers were trying to tell. “Ricki and the Flash” has much to admire, but little to hold onto.
At one point, Ricki suffers a minor onstage meltdown that tries to spell out a number of the story’s themes. “Mick Jagger had seven kids with four different women,” she begins, innocently enough, before adding, “he didn’t actually raise them, but … ” and then veers off into an alternately righteous and self-serving rant about the free pass men often receive for abdicating family responsibilities. It’s a nuanced, well-written piece of dialogue, but it doesn’t really get us any closer to understanding why Ricki did what she did, or feeling one way or the other about it.
This issue extends to Streep’s performance, which compiles a wealth of impressive actorly attributes without ever really finding a center for the character. She learned to play guitar for the role, sings distinctively, and crafts her own Bonnie Raitt-esque onstage stance, but she’s never really believable as a rock and roll lifer. There’s a lightness, an unblemished sort of effervescence to her that even multimillionaire superstars would struggle to maintain after so many tours and late nights, never mind someone who’s been living hand-to-mouth for decades. She brings plenty of salt, but not nearly enough grit.
It’s been 30 years since Demme directed “Stop Making Sense,” but he’s lost little of his preternatural instincts for how to film a live performance — even when the band sequences distract, they’re never less than thrillingly shot and staged — and Streep delivers a lovely acoustic take on Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice’s “Cold One,” written specifically for the film.