As Ricki Randazzo, the leader of a never-was bar band called the Flash, Meryl Streep bounces her way through an off-key cover of “American Girl”—not with grace or precision, but with the reckless abandon of a buzzed sorority pledge riding a mechanical bull. Her eyes are red enough that we know she must have taken a puff alongside each beer before stepping on stage. And her outfit—bedazzled blue vest, a side-parted streak of plaits, and enough eyeshadow to supply a gentleman’s club—is glam rock by way of goodwill. It all adds up to an observation rarely made about roles played by Streep: Ricki looks old.
You can see the remnants of every line she’s blown in the wrinkled crevices of her face. And that weariness is essential to Ricki and the Flash, the latest film written by Diablo Cody, who’s been documenting generation gaps in farcical comedies since Juno. Ricki left her moneyed husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and three teenaged kids back when. She’s only returning home now because daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) has emerged from her own divorce with suicidal tendencies pronounced. And thus the would-be arena rocker gets to become reacquainted with the gang, including sons Adam (Nick Westray), who’s openly gay—to Ricki’s apparent chagrin—and Josh (Sebastian Stan), who’s engaged to Emily (Hailey Gates.)
That latter pair is outwardly eco-friendly, the type to distribute birdseed in lieu of rice at their wedding. So Cody’s script is mining laughs from the faux-pas traded between 20-somethings who care about going green and a child of the ’60s who’d rather be smoking it. If the film had been directed by Any Old Hack, this review would end right there. But the director is Jonathan Demme, whose greatest films are marked by the rich emotional depths he affords to even his slightest characters. There are touches here, like Ricki’s decidedly conservative leanings, that’d look as cheap as a bad Lifetime movie if handled by a lesser hand. The accomplishment of Demme’s Ricki is that it’s got a nuance that those cable networks would trip over themselves trying to cut out.
The script sometimes spells out its ideas in a font as sloppy as Ricki’s makeup. There’s a fascistic manager at the Whole Foods knockoff where she works whose obsessively smiley visage is meant to be a reminder of the prepackaged culture she wanted to escape. Instead he’s just an inhuman target born of a writer who got stuck on caps lock. And yet the interplay between Demme’s camera and his actor’s faces creates a deep end among the shallow waters. When Pete sees Ricki stepping out of a cab, it’s a beautiful adaptation of one of the great Salinger lines: “He tried to empty his face of all expression that might quite simply, perhaps even beautifully, reveal how he felt about the arriving person.” Demme draws all that with no flashbacks, backstory, or interior monologue—just a roll-up of the camera, timed perfectly to capture the shifting expression in one man’s eyes.
It’s the kind of moment you leave the movie remembering: It doesn’t advance the plot, but it does expand the margins. Ricki is full of them; it stretches beyond the frame. There’s the shade we see her throwing at the decorations Pete’s second wife (Audra McDonald) has adorned their kitchen with. There’s the way she and her boyfriend Greg (Rick Springfield) have to slip off their old-folks glasses before sharing a bedside kiss. Demme gives us three exterior shots of Pete’s massive home, then sets the “Wedding Day” title card (it’s Josh and Emily’s) outside a Mobil and a cheap motel. That’s how far Ricki remains—financially and personally, because the two are often intertwined—from her former nuclear family. He cuts deeper into his characters with establishing shots than most filmmakers do with whole scenes.
Demme’s best film, Melvin and Howard, was also a slightly screwball farce about the troubled intersection between the stagnant rich and the tragically ambitious poor. He thrives on the dialectic charge provided by opposing viewpoints: right vs left, white vs black, young vs old, “American Girl” vs “Bad Romance.” There’s one sequence where Ricki, who would’ve been at the age Julie is now during the Reaganized ’80s, tries to energize her daughter by taking her out for an expensive manicure—the price of which does nothing to impress or relax her millennial kin, much to Ricki’s disappointment. It’s what might be called a throwaway scene, and yet you could spend the rest of the movie sorting out the socioeconomic implications it leaves behind.
All the identities and beliefs crash up against each other perpetually, like waves onto the shore, until a truly empathetic worldview emerges in their wake: one that sees social progress and interpersonal understanding occurring only after one understands their own history—be it personal, familial, or national. Even Ricki’s righty leanings get their own cause-and-effect explanation by way of another heartbreaking throwaway, which quietly reveals the formative moment of the character’s preteen years. “Meryl Streep goes old” is just a marketable setup. In caring about how she got there, Cody and Demme’s Ricki finds profound levels of hope—including some that the American commercial filmmaking industry can still produce works greater than the sum of their poster designs.
RICKI AND THE FLASH. RATED PG-13. NOW PLAYING. EXPANDING TO WIDER RELEASE FRI 8.14.