'Ricki and the Flash' is just another movie about families gone wild

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

Screenwriter Diablo Cody doesn't bring anything terribly distinctive to the mix when it comes to the family's squabblings in the movie and rocker Ricki (Meryl Streep) seems more of a contrivance despite Streep's best efforts.

Bob Vergara/Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Musician Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) attempts to reconnect with her estranged grown children for a family wedding in ‘Ricki and the Flash.’

Meryl Streep plays a rhythm guitarist and rock-band frontwoman in Jonathan Demme’s “Ricki and the Flash.” She not only does her own singing but also her own guitar playing. After all the awards Streep has won for acting, I guess she felt it was high time to cop a Grammy.

Strutting around for most of the film in her leather rocker duds, Streep’s Ricki Rendazzo is almost as much of a concoction as her witch in “Into the Woods.” She wears her uniform as a taunt and also as a way of defining herself. She’s a woman out of time – a superannuated hippie.

She mostly lives from hand to mouth as a supermarket cashier in Los Angeles while also fronting her band, the Flash, in a San Fernando Valley bar where the regulars, like the band members, are well past their prime. When her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), now a prosperous Indianapolis businessman, calls to tell her that their daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter), has gone off the deep end following a sudden marital breakup, Ricki accepts Pete’s plea to pay a visit and cool things down. 

Pete and Ricki, who also have two sons, the about-to-be-married Joshua (Sebastian Stan) and the openly gay Adam (Nick Westrate), have long since parted – and they seem to occupy different universes. Ricki’s grungy world is hardscrabble and working-class; Pete, who has happily remarried, lives in a spacious mansion. When Ricki shows up, the air is immediately thickened with familial hostility. The children resent Ricki for essentially abandoning them for her career. Pete’s wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), when she eventually arrives on the scene, soon enough joins the anti-Ricki contingent. (The face-off between her and Ricki, full of verbal jabs and counterjabs, is the best written scene in the movie.)

For the most part, the movie’s seethings and squabblings are reminiscent of umpteen other films about families gone wild. The screenwriter, Diablo Cody (“Juno”), doesn’t bring anything terribly distinctive to the mix. Despite Streep’s best efforts, Ricki seems more of a contrivance than a flesh-and-blood character. She stomps around in her rocker duds, but Ricki is essentially sentimentalized – she’s a stand-in for all the other superannuated hippies out there in the audience.

The film does have the cachet of pitting Streep and her own daughter against each other, and Gummer proves she can match her mother’s formidability in battle. Kline is playing an officious type, but he does provide a few much-needed moments when the free spirit he once was peeks through.

Given the grinding sameness of the interfamily dynamics, it’s perhaps no accident that Demme overloads the film with concert sequences featuring the Flash. (Ricki’s lovelorn band mate, played by real-life rocker Rick Springfield, is in the film to light a few sparks.) Demme has directed some of the greatest music documentaries ever made, including the Talking Heads classic “Stop Making Sense,” so footage of the Flash here makes sense. But too often I felt as if I were watching a demo reel of the band.

Demme doesn’t just give us snippets of the band’s concerts, he offers up – especially in the big, overblown wedding party finale – extended play. At times I found myself asking, “Hey, what happened to the other movie?” (It’s the same problem I had with Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married.”) Demme seems happiest here filming the Flash. But the Flash is not exactly the Talking Heads, and giving over so much of the movie to the band only points up what a mixed bag everything else is. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief drug content, sexuality, and language.)

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