You know the kind of movie your parents suggest watching when you’re visiting, and you agree to watch it because you know it’s relatively harmless entertainment that won’t include a graphic sex scene or anything similarly mortifying to watch with your parents? But then you end up pretending like you don’t actually like it because you’re not supposed to get sucked into the kind of populist maudlin tripe that’s made to appeal to white middle-aged suburban parents, except you do like it because goddamn it, it’s just so earnest and heartfelt that it works, even if it is crazy cheesy? And when it’s over and your parents ask if you like it, you downplay your reaction and go, “It was okay, I guess. Not Meryl Streep’s best.” And you all agree that Streep has been in better movies, but she was pretty great in this one, too. And then you spend the rest of the night humming the songs to yourself and feeling slightly uplifted by the notion that it’s never too late for a second chance, which makes you mouth-vomit a little, but it’s still true. Well Ricki and the Flash is that movie.
Written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jonathan Demme, Ricki is a mish-mash of styles and tones that don’t really hang together all that well, but with Meryl Streep Streeping her way through it, it ends up working out well enough. Which isn’t to say the movie is good—it isn’t, not really—it’s just that the tunes are catchy enough and there are enough good performances for it to eek by on charisma. Streep stars as Ricki Randazzo, a washed-up never-was rocker who abandoned her family thirty years before to pursue her music dream, which never panned out. She ends up fronting a glorified cover band, playing depressing roadside bars in Tarzana—this place looks like the Double Deuce before Dalton shows up—and awkwardly espousing Republican ideology during song breaks. Ricki isn’t likeable, except that she’s played by Meryl Streep, whom we are conditioned to like. It’s the first of many contradictions.
Streep’s real life daughter, Mamie Gummer, stars as Ricki’s estranged daughter, Julie, whose life is falling apart, prompting Ricki’s return home. There she finds her children grown and seemingly without need of her, their mother-space occupied by Maureen (Broadway Legend Audra McDonald, completely wasted). Gummer not only looks just like her mother, but she has a fair share of Streep’s talent, too—RIP Emily Owens, M.D.—and she gets the beefiest role among Ricki’s children, which she plays to the hilt. A lot of Ricki and the Flash feels like an acting camp challenge, with everyone cranked to eleven and EMOTING AT FULL VOLUME. The more subtle performances (Kevin Kline, Sebastian Stan, Broadway Legend Audra McDonald) get buried under the noise.
The movie is cheesy and obvious with a didactic kind of inclusiveness—Tea Partier Ricki has a gay son she must Come To Terms With—and Cody’s earnestness clashes with Demme’s twistier sensibility. The end result is a muddled but still functional story about a terrible mother who resolves a lifetime of bad decisions and selfishness through the power of rock and roll. It doesn’t have the teeth of Cody’s superb and cutting Young Adult, or the focus of Demme’s work on movies like Rachel Getting Married and Philadelphia. But everyone is acting like they’re in one of those better movies, which gives Ricki the momentum to power through its own shortcomings. And thanks to the tangible chemistry of Streep and Gummer, you buy into the simplistic resolution, too. Part of you knows you’re not watching a good movie, but the rest of you is too taken by Streep and her daughter acting their asses off to care.