Meryl Streep has never felt this kicky onscreen. She’s Ricki Rendazzo, man, and she’s like your favorite beat-up guitar that can still play the hits. No, Ricki’s not 100 percent reliable (or market-testing likable), but there’s something to her. She’s a flake, not really a family person, and frankly, she’s intellectually undemanding. Sure, she may sport a “Don’t Tread on Me” tattoo on her back, and maybe she’s a little cringe-worthy in her ways (a tad racist, a tad uncomfortable with homosexuality), but Ricki means no offense. Ricki was born Linda Brummell, but she feels that she’s Ricki. And Ricki’s gonna Ricki.
You know that person, the one that means well but just can’t get their shit straight for the life of them, but they keep at it? From Ricki’s three braids on the side of her head to the three black stripe tattoos on her right arm, she carries herself like a bygone era, but with such charmingly nervous confidence.
And that’s the joy of Ricki and the Flash, an irresistible family jam, a softy summer slowdown. This is the kind of movie your mom will sing during, and you won’t mind, because you’re having such a rocking good time yourself.
Ricki is the lead singer of The Flash, a San Fernando Valley band that rock the classics each night for barflies and fawning bartenders. The Flash is a ship of old souls and runaways, but they’ve mastered “American Girl” and “Bad Romance” in bar band fashion. Ricki’s rendition of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” isn’t studio-quality, but boy does Ricki commit to killing it karaoke-cover-style with all she’s got, every night.
Ricki works the grocery store checkout by day to chase her dreams at night. But she did leave behind a family in Indiana in that chase. Ricki’s pulled back into her old family when she finds out that her daughter Julie (Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) was left by her husband. Introduce Ricki to Indiana, and you more or less have a movie about Ricki’s offbeat attempts to rekindle with her family.
This is a film comprised of dozens of nice moments: earned jokes, quick lines, and sentimental songs. It’s hard not to get taken in. Ricki may be rooted in ‘80s drama clichés (an uptight bride, random acts of choreography, Kevin Kline…), but Streep, writer Diablo Cody, and director Jonathan Demme find nifty ways of elevating familiar scenes into an airy, ambient dramedy. The drama ranges from eavesdropping to knockdown verbal fisticuffs, but in a no-bull sort of way. The humor may conveniently lean on jokes about substances, age, and destitution, but somehow Streep never misses. Everything gels, and the film keeps the beat for Ricki’s bittersweet song. It’s a terrific character piece that benefits from the undeniably good mood, clever writing, moments of sincerity, great tunes, and very gracious cast.
Back to Streep. She is the whole show, mostly for the better. As a star vehicle, Ricki and the Flash isn’t about making Streep and her Ricki a martyr, a shining light, or a sage. Ricki’s just one-of-a-kind. She has her ups and downs, and she casually, entertainingly privies us to Ricki’s life and times. Oscars for stuffy embodiments of Margaret Thatcher are all well and good, but isn’t it more fun to see Streep get funky and kill the web witticisms of Diablo Cody?
“Are you nosing in? That is so Midwestern!” she belts at a Cosby-sweater geek in a coffee shop.
Sing it, Ricki.