Strangely, director Jonathan Demme's new film Ricki and the Flash subverts usual dysfunctional family tropes by skirting conflict in favor of nostalgia. The story, about an estranged mother seeing her adult kids and ex-husband again, doesn't wallow in negativity as you might expect. The result is something fleeting, but not inconsequential.
Ricki and the Flash is about parents' love. Ricki "Don't call me 'Linda Brummell'" Randazzo (Meryl Streep) is an aging rocker playing bar nights for peanuts with her trusty band, the Flash. Her boyfriend, Greg (Rick Springfield) is her lead guitarist and the locals love her. All five or six of them.
But Ricki, with her half-braided hairstyle and leather pants, has another life she left behind long ago to pursue her rock 'n' roll fantasy. Her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) calls and says she should come home. Their thirtysomething daughter Julie (Streep's actual daughter Mamie Gummer) just attempted suicide after a shocking divorce. So Ricki uses the last of her cash to buy a plane ticket to Indianapolis.
Back in the Midwest, Ricki is greeted with warmth by Greg and hostility by Julie ("Do you always dress like a hooker from Night Court?"). But Julie warms up quickly, abandoning her routine of not showering or changing clothes for a little QT with Mom. Inbetween, we're treated to a raucous dinner that reunites the whole family. Ricki and Pete have two sons also. Adam (Nick Westrate) is pissed at her for not knowing he's gay, and Josh (Sebastian Stan) is more forgiving, and engaged.
Ricki is a relic from a lost age and seeing her again eventually softens her hardened family as nostalgia tends to do. Pete is immediately charmed. Kline plays him with an air of tolerance that suggests he's just glad to see her again. Anger, at this point, having been buried by the sands of time. His wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) is less forgiving. She picked up Ricki's slack when she left and doesn't let the rocker forget it. Ricki, immature, with no defense, pouts when Maureen describes Julie as "her kid" but she knows she's right. When Maureen suggests it's time to leave, she listens. Later, Ricki gets another chance when she's invited back to Indy for Josh's wedding. And she makes the most of it.
Writer Diablo Cody returns to the soil she overturned in 2011's Young Adult in Ricki and the Flash. Both films are about pride-gulping trips back home. Cody has always been interested in family dynamics (Juno, The United States of Tara) and her script is toned down compared to her other work in terms of comedic moments. But it's also nowhere near as melodramatic as Demme's Rachel Getting Married, another movie about familial relationships. It makes perfect sense then, that Demme and Cody's collaboration would yield a film that's not exactly funny, and not melodramatic. Demme, the technical pro behind The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia in the '90s, doesn't delve into comedy often. His adaptation of Cody's script reflects that.
I found the lack of true drama in Ricki and the Flash refreshing. It has a few too many unimpressive classic rock cover songs, but part of me liked that as well. It's the anti-Crazy Heart, about a aging rocker who never had huge talent to begin with. But she still performs for the love of music. The flip side is that she gave up her family for a dream that should have died years ago. There's another film there, but this one isn't interested in skewering Ricki for her past transgressions. The film exists in the realm of forgiveness. Although, why her family forgives her so quickly, or if the wounds aren't really that deep, is never investigated. It's a shallow character study.
Like Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place a few years ago, Ricki wears her rocker persona on the outside and it marginalizes her. Demme's camera pauses to show us how people react to her clothes and hairstyle and it makes us pity her. Ricki doesn't own her style when she goes back home, she's sheepish about it, not wanting to draw attention to herself or embarrass her kids. That rang true for me as something a loving parent would do. In fact, when she's around, the kids come alive. Julie snaps out of her funk, and the boys, with a few hiccups at first, embrace her also.
For Streep, Ricki and the Flash is a chance to play an awkward hero. Ricki's not a drug or sex addict. She doesn't drink to hide from the world. She's boring in most ways, aside from how she dresses, and that makes sense. She's just a normal person trying to find happiness. The film celebrates that journey without chastising her for her decision to leave. And Streep creates a likable character from Ricki's background. Maybe her family forgives her easily because she's a musician. Rock stars are always with partners who deserve better. Maybe she's just likable. Is life that simple? I think it can be. It just doesn't make for the best movie.