Review by Matthew Lowe
Two decades ago, Ricki abandoned her husband and young children to play heartland rock in a backwater California pub, but now she’s back, and she’s going to set things right.
If you believe that rock and roll excuses years of child neglect, then get ready to rock as Meryl Streep takes to the stage as Ricki, with her band The Flash, featuring Mr. Rick Springfield on lead guitar as her lover, Greg.
Grumble as one of their Tom Petty cover versions is superseded by the inconvenient news that Rikki’s daughter Julie (Mammie Gummer, Streep’s real-life offspring) has attempted suicide back home in the Midwest.
Marvel that years of disharmony are swept aside when Ricki upstages her son’s wedding with an endless Bruce Springsteen song.
It’s not that Ricki and the Flash isn’t loaded with charm, but the way in which it glosses over serious familial issues with easy solutions -namely, music- never overcomes its awkwardness, making the balance between comedy and pathos sit uneasily.
The old Peggy Lee song suggests that “if that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing!” It could be this film’s statement of intent, given that this is literally indicative of how it ends.
If feel-good movies by their nature require that you suspend your disbelief -and if that is not just necessity but actually the point- Ricki’s problem is that the lie it tells is too transparent. In a way it works: you probably will come away from the film feeling good; but you might also feel conned as in, hey wait, nothing much really changed, they just danced!
Now, there are hundreds of movies where people do literally dance their troubles away, and this is just fine. The difference between Ricki and the Flash and an old MGM musical is that those existed in a sort of hyper-reality -like a snow globe- that had little if any pretension to approximating life as we know it. Ricky wants to ape musical non-logic while approximating realism. The problem is that Ricky isn’t a musical, and the aspersions of musical logic are ill suited to non-ironic topics like suicide, child neglect, class snobbery, or latent homophobia.
It isn’t that those topics are dealt with without tact, but more that they peter out too quickly to be consequential. Ricky returns to life on the road and her family as a presence in the film mostly vanishes, which is a shame, because the tentative relations between Kevin Kline -Ricki’s estranged husband- and the two Streeps is more endearing than the forced on stage banter with Springfield that replaces it.
The elder Streep is probably the film’s biggest asset due to her chameleon commitment to whatever she does. Her vast likeability is what mostly conceals the improbability of her playing dress-ups as an impoverished rock star. You enjoy it because she seems to be enjoying it, not because you believe in it. Her singing, which has not improved since Abba: The Movie, is less incongruous on the other hand because rock favours gusto over technicality, and her short-comings are obscured by the volume of a refreshingly raw live band. Gunner holds her own against her mother, but ends up having not much to do, while Kevin Kline -playing it straight- is also unfortunately underused.
Nevertheless, Ricki and the Flash is as entertaining as it is well meaning. That The Room is entertaining and Larry Crowne is well meaning should not be unconsidered, nor that Ricki is less funny than either, but take it on its own terms and it’s a perfectly pleasant way to spend ninety or so minutes, even if it doesn’t necessarily blow your mind, and even if that damned Springsteen song is stuck in your head for the next week.