Meryl Streep gets a lot of praise – and Oscar nominations – for her diverse work in films such as The Iron Lady (as Margaret Thatcher) Julie & Julia (as the almost inimitable Julia Child) or even Into the Woods (as a stereotypical fairy tale witch).
But among her recent roles, I’ve always found her to be at her best (and most likable) in a more natural setting in fluffy fare like It’s Complicated or Hope Springs, where her performance alone elevates a movie in need of something deeper than what’s inherent in the script.
Here’s another one: Ricki and the Flash is good-enough as it is, with a decent screenplay from Diablo Cody (Juno) and some nice fly-on-the-wall direction by Jonathan Demme. But Streep’s performance makes it something special.
She’s Ricki Rendazzo, an aging rock musician who left her suburban family years ago with hopes of making it big in L.A. Unlike Al Pacino in Danny Collins, she’s still hoping.
Now, she’s got a semi-permanent gig at a local bar – backed up by the titular Flash, whose members include real-life rocker Rick Springfield – that comes with a free tab. By day, she’s struggling to survive, working as a cashier and pretending to smile at Whole Foods (er, ‘Total Foods’).
But she gets a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) after their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter) suffers through a messy break-up and divorce. Ricki – formerly Linda – grudgingly agrees to fly to Indianapolis to be with her daughter in her time of need.
Of course, she hasn’t seen that daughter since she was a teenager, and she isn’t exactly welcomed back into the family with open arms. Her two sons, gay Adam (Nick Westrate) and soon-to-be-married Josh (Sebastian Stan), are similarly standoffish at a dinner engagement that threatens to run off the rails.
But Ricki is their mother – and was once Pete’s wife – and despite her past transgressions she’s able to work her way back into their hearts. If only a bit. But an extended reunion is out of the question upon the arrival of Maureen (Audra McDonald), Pete’s current wife.
We think we know where Ricki and the Flash is going after the first act, but I was pleasantly surprised when the film eschews dramatic conventions about halfway through and goes to another place entirely – I didn’t expect this level of depth from Cody’s script, but the natural progression of these characters’ lives feels a lot better than the traditional arc.
Likewise, director Demme’s handling of the material avoids falling into the usual-usual. He lingers on scenes longer than you expect, reminding the audience that character development, rather than plot, is first and foremost on his mind.
The resolution of the storyline between Ricki and her daughter is so subdued it’s almost non-existent, but it’s incredibly effective: there’s a single shot of Streep and Gummer standing next to each other at the end that says more than ten minutes of plot mechanics could have been covered.
And then there’s Streep. Decked out in a leather jacket and ripped jeans, with a pink flash in her hair flanked by a few dreads, she’s not just convincing as the aging rocker but also especially sympathetic in a potentially difficult role. There’s a climactic scene with Springfield – who’s also very good here – where Streep goes from one end of the scale to the other using only her eyes, and she plays it off perfectly.
Ricki and the Flash was already pretty good – on the level, I think of Demme’s previous Rachel Getting Married, which it shares some surface similarities with – but Streep makes it something special.
Trivia: Streep opens the film by belting out a cover of Tom Petty’s American Girl; one of Buffalo Bill’s victims sang along to the same song in an early scene of director Demme’s Silence of the Lambs.