×

Film Review: ‘Ricki and the Flash’

Featuring Meryl Streep as a failed rock star, Jonathan Demme's film consistently defies expectations to both charming and baffling effect.

With:
Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate, Hailey Gates, Ben Platt, Charlotte Rae, Rick Rosas, Joe Vitale, Bernie Worrell.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3623726/

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Ricki and the Flash'

Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, July 29, 2015. (In Locarno Film Festival — opener.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 100 MIN.

Production: A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a TriStar Pictures presentation in association with LStar Capital of a Marc Platt/Badwill Entertainment production. Produced by Marc Platt, Gary Goetzman, Diablo Cody, Mason Novick. Executive producers, Ron Bozman, Adam Siegel, Lorene Scafaria, Ben Waisbren.

Crew: Directed by Jonathan Demme. Screenplay, Diablo Cody. Camera (color), Declan Quinn; editor, Wyatt Smith; production designer, Stuart Wurtzel; art director, Patricia Woodbridge; costume designer, Ann Roth; sound (Dolby Digital), Jeff Pullman; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Paul Urmson; visual effects supervisor, Eran Dinur; visual effects, the Molecule, Brainstorm Digital; assistant director, H.H. Cooper; casting, Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield.

With: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate, Hailey Gates, Ben Platt, Charlotte Rae, Rick Rosas, Joe Vitale, Bernie Worrell.

More Film

  • Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Pulls Ahead of 'Hobbs & Shaw' Overseas

    Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might not have hit No. 1 in North America, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is leading the way at the international box office, where it collected $53.7 million from 46 markets. That marks the best foreign opening of Tarantino’s career, coming in ahead of 2012’s “Django Unchained.” “Once [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Leads Crowded Weekend With $21 Million

    The Bean Bag Boys, the self-appointed nickname for the trio of best friends in Universal’s “Good Boys,” are conquering much more than sixth grade. They are also leading the domestic box office, exceeding expectations and collecting $21 million on opening weekend. “Good Boys,” which screened at 3,204 North American theaters, is a much-needed win for [...]

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. In announcing the Golden Leopard prize for the film, as well as best actress [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content