10 August 2015 | StevePulaski
A film committed to emotion rather than emotional mawkishness
"Ricki and the Flash" opens with Meryl Streep, boasting acid-washed articles of clothing that looks like it was stuffed away in a 1970's time capsule, half-braided hair, complete with rings, bracelets, and accessorized trinkets all over her body, belting out "American Girl" by Tom Petty. If this doesn't make her one of Hollywood's finest character/method actresses, I don't know what does.
Streep plays Linda "Ricki" Rendazzo, the frontrunner of a band known as "Ricki and the Flash" that plays largely at dive bars and seedy nightclubs. Linda, in the meantime, slaves away at a supermarket job, bossed around by a manager half her age, making paltry wages whilst being estranged from her immediate family. One day, her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) calls her up to inform her that their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) is going through a messy divorce after discovering her husband cheating on her. Julie, who has already attempted suicide and since ceased showering and eating, lives with Pete and, upon seeing her mother for the first time in years, is understandably disgusted and appalled that she now wants to play mother. Linda also learns that her youngest son is planning on marrying and subsequently not inviting her to the wedding. Trying to balance out this newfound mess and work things out with her present beau Greg (rock and roll star Rick Springfield), Linda tries to be a mother to those who always needed her and somebody people won't cringe at the thought of putting their faith into as a person.
"Ricki and the Flash" bears a seriously tragic angle from a character perspective, given the fact that while Ricki was an absent mother, chasing rock star glory and fame, she wound up being a cover band in diver bars, the result of a failed marriage, and the bane of her children's existence. Now, Ricki has hit middle age hard and, reflecting on her life and career, she has little to show for it other than a mess of circumstances and success that was never fully realized.
Screenwriter Diablo Cody has a talent for making the most unattractive characters attractive in a way that's not condescending like an Adam Sandler film, yet not depressingly bleak like a Lars von Trier film. Cody is also unique because her films don't focus on characters wallowing in pity and self-loathing, but rather, actively trying to better themselves or making the best out of a bad situation. The latter is what Linda largely spends the majority of "Ricki and the Flash" doing. Instead of wallowing, she's being active in trying to be the mother that she never was to her children.
Streep does some very strong work here, being a captivating presence all throughout the film and remaining an actress who can be trusted with any role in terms of delivering quality. It also helps that Cody knows her strong suits, which are complex characters with a lot of emotions yet no really clear-cut idea of how to express such emotions. The end result, however, is a duo that I never envisioned would work together, yet alone work so well together.
As far as family drama goes, "Ricki and the Flash" finds itself positioned between the lesser "This is Where I Leave You" and the superior "August: Osage County." It's far more dramatic than I ever anticipated, not sacrificing rich, emotional significance for cheap comic ploys or mawkishness. However, there's a theatrical element to the film that undermines its emotions, particularly at the end of the film. Yet "Ricki and the Flash" exhibits a lot of undertones not routinely showcases by the mainstream, which make it such a commendable project, especially with a great actress at the forefront.