Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep), the center of Ricki and The Flash, is a rocker living in L.A. who’s given up everything else in her life to pursue being a star. At this point well into her 60s, she spends her days as a checkout clerk for a wannabe Whole Foods, and her nights fronting a cover band in a bar, where she belts out songs the audience loves in between awkward banter and anti-Obama rants. When she relunctantly answers a phone call from her ex-husband (Kevin Kline), though, the foundation of happiness she’s created for herself begins to crack.
It turns out that Ricki’s daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s daughter) is in the midst of a breakdown. Her husband left her for another woman, and she’s holed up in her father’s home trying to recover. A near-broke Ricki makes the trip to Indianapolis to help, in spite of her concerns about coming, and even though Ricki’s style, beliefs and general demeanor clash with those around her, she tries to fit in to the place where her children, also including sons Joshua (Sebastian Stan) and Adam (Nick Westrate), have built their lives.
Ricki’s children, to varying degrees that are never quite made clear, resent her for abandoning them to pursue her largely failed career. They were raised more by their stepmother (Audra McDonald), and as they grew up, Ricki’s appearances became less and less frequent. The question Ricki asks herself, after coming back for the first time in years, is whether she can find a way back into their lives, or if there’s been too much damage to their relationships.
For all her acclaim, Streep has been accused of playing it safe with her choices in collaborators. Whether or not you agree with that sentiment, it’s clear that Ricki and The Flash represents something slightly more challenging for the actress. Here, she collaborates with director Jonathan Demme and writer Diablo Cody. Cody’s contribution to the film is key. Ricki and The Flash shares similarities to another Cody script – Young Adult – in its focus on a woman returning to a home that’s nowhere, having made very little of what she thought she’d accomplish. Ricki is a walking set of contradictions (wannabe rock star who’s also stridently conservative, living in a liberal city), and it seems to get Streep out of her comfort zone as a performer.
That ends up being a positive. Ricki ends up being one of the more three-dimensional characters Streep’s played recently, because Ricki’s contradictions come across as someone we all know. It’s a more grounded but real performance than she’s given in recent years, and that carries through to the film’s (many) musical performances, which were performed live. She’s backed by a band made of pros, including Greg (Rick Springfield), who’s her guitar player as well as her love interest. Streep is also joined by a stellar ensemble cast. Streep may get the bulk of attention for the film, but the secret weapon in the cast is Gummer, who ends up with a character whose moves are more unpredictable and interesting than her mother’s.
All of this said, Ricki and The Flash isn’t perfect. The script awkwardly shuttles Ricki back to Los Angeles, then back to Indiana for the film’s conclusion. The film could have also used more attention as to why Ricki never really came back when she left, or it could have dealt more with how Ricki’s gender plays into the general perception of her by those from her past. But it is different enough, both for its star and in terms of what’s generally produced for older audiences, and effective enough to work.