The imperfect yet infectiously jubilant “Ricki and the Flash” takes its name from the low level bar band whose raggedly exhilarating cover of Tom Petty’s iconic “American Girl” opens Jonathan Demme’s film. The table-setting sequence evocatively contrasts the joy of performance with the half-full bar, illuminated by a walls of plasma TV’s showing sports, all indifferent to the human drama on the stage and in the audience. Here people come not for 25 cent wings but to cleanse themselves, to quote Planet Earth's Poet Laureate whose underrated tune makes for the film's rousing smily face climax, with the ministry of rock ‘n’ roll. And it proves that “Ricki and the Flash” understands the eternal truth of live music - that is, it’s not about transformation but momentary transcendence.
This bar would seem the last stand for Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep). She left her family in Indianapolis years ago to head west and become a rock star. That dream didn’t take, and now between bouts of bar-based rock-outs she works a crummy checkout job at a Whole Foods-ish ripoff with an over-enthusiastic supervisor forty years her junior. Life happens. Ricki receives a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline). Their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) has attempted suicide in the wake of divorce. So Ricki is summoned to Indiana to provide solace to the grown-up little girl she hasn't seen in forever. Yet despite Julie trying to kill herself and despite Ricki having abandoned her own flesh and blood, the film insistently refuses to push these people past the brink of despair. This isn’t the darkest timeline.
Upon introduction, Julie is defined not by the emotional anguish that must surely be tearing her up, but by her hair, a comical hot mess, a signal of the film’s broad intentions. The entire family goes out to a painfully sitcom-esque dinner where Ricki re-confronts her sons, one of whom she learns is engaged to be married, one of whom she discovers is gay, in a scene that rings a litany of false notes (except for Pete ordering pommes frites which seems completely right). Though Ricki is demonstrated as an intolerant conservative, Diablo Cody’s script plays this for comedy, so all the liberals in the audience can laugh along. Streep, as convincing as she is amidst so much over-costuming, doesn’t even to take that part of her character’s personality too seriously, like she’s communicating with her eyes, “Isn't this ridiculous?” Yeah, kinda.
Rather than addressing its many weighty topics head on, the film, like Ricki, avoids them. When Pete’s current wife (Audra McDonald), the one who really raised their daughter eventually turns up, she chastises Ricki for taking their daughter to get a pedicure in lieu of therapy and smoking pot. She’s calling out Ricki, sure, but even more she comes across as calling out the movie itself. How can you treat something so serious so whimsically?
Ricki retreats to California. You’re tempted to give up on the movie. But then, it does something unexpected. With a road to traditional silver screen redemption all set up for the taking, “Ricki and the Flash” rolls down its window, cranks the tuneage and takes the long way around.
It sets up all these issues in need of resolution and then pointedly refuses to resolve them, admirably aware that solving such deep-seated problems takes so much more than ninety minutes.
Ricki might be willing to say “I love you” to Greg (Rick Springfield), her boyfriend and The Flash’s lead guitarist, but that confession is painted not so much as True Love as Why Not? Julie’s depression remains. She is decidedly uncured of anything. And the thought that a wanton mother could simply re-win the way into her family’s hearts after a few weeks is treated as laughable. Instead Demme and Diablo shift gears, transforming their film from limp domestic drama into an effervescent concert film, like “Once” with classic rock for its chassis, the jaw-dropping conclusion becoming what any night out at the concert hall is for any of us, a chance to ineffably confess our sins even if we’re still sinners.
This isn’t, to be clear, denial; this is letting it go three minutes at a time with the implicit knowledge that it will all return in the end. And that maybe, just maybe, if that music is truly righteous, your emotional armor will have undergone sufficient repair to reface the world’s usual dosage of toil and trouble. The movie ends and we know these characters are not all right; they are merely all right for right now.