RICKI AND THE FLASH  * * * 1 / 2

Starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald and Rick Springfield. Screenplay by Diablo Cody. Directed by Jonathan Demme.

A couple decades ago Ricki Randazzo moved to California with rock n’ roll dreams that never worked out. She cut a record that went nowhere, and nowadays rings up overpriced organic groceries at a snooty chain supermarket this film’s legal department will take great pains to insist is not Whole Foods. But every Wednesday through Sunday night at a Tarzana dive called The Salt Well, Ricki and the Flash take the ramshackle stage and rock out as if their lives depended on it. “She thinks this is Madison Square Garden,” quips guitarist Greg.

If they sound a bit better than your average San Fernando Valley bar band it’s because that’s P. Funk/Talking Heads’ Bernie Worrell on keyboards and Neil Young’s late sideman Rick Rosas on bass, amongst other ringers. Greg the guitarist is none other than Rick Springfield, and underneath all those tattoos, rocket queen makeup and plaited hair we’ve got Dame Meryl Streep as Ms. Ricki.

And if their opening number is a bit more exciting than your average tavern entertainment it’s because Ricki and the Flash is a film directed by Jonathan Demme, who after countless superb concert movies has forgotten more about capturing live music onscreen than most young punks will ever learn. As the band rips through a gloriously ragged cover of “American Girl,” Demme highlights the easy interplay between performers and their rapport with the regulars in the crowd, building to an exuberant crescendo demonstrating just how much a run-down Tarzana dive can indeed sometimes feel like Madison Square Garden.

But Ricki wasn’t always Ricki. In another life she was Linda Brummell of Indianapolis, wife of Pete (Kevin Kline) and mother to three children she abandoned back when she set out for the coast with stars in her eyes. Ricki hasn’t exactly been great about keeping in touch over the years, but now her ex is on the phone and asking for help. Daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s own spawn) is going through a nasty divorce and severe depression. Stepmom Maureen (Audra McDonald) is out of town on business and the flummoxed Pete needs Ricki/Linda to come home and try to act like Julie’s mother again, if only for a couple days.

It doesn’t go well. The prodigal mom isn’t exactly welcomed by her now-grown children, and the film teeters on caricature during a few early scenes in which brassy lower-class Ricki clashes with the uptight moneyed folk in her ex-husband’s gated community. Ricki and the Flash was written by Diablo Cody, who has a resume full of screenplays setting up characters to be knocked down like bowling pins because they’re not as smart as Diablo Cody. One can easily imagine an unbearably smarmy version of this picture helmed by Cody’s usual partner-in-slime Jason Reitman.

So it’s a good thing for all of us that Jonathan Demme doesn’t work that way. The most compassionate of American filmmakers, he’s a guy who just plain seems to like people and is curious about what makes them tick. He takes Cody’s formulaic, occasionally rigged scenarios and hangs back with the bit players when least expected. Everybody in this movie has a story, and Demme is interested in all of them. It’s an approach that’s messy, off-balance and wonderfully human.

Contradictions abound. Sure, we get some laughs when Ricki encourages Julie to ditch therapy and smoke some pot after a shopping spree on her ex’s AmEx card, but the film is also clear-eyed enough to call her out on such reckless behavior. In an interesting flip mirroring the country’s current political confusion, all these stuffy rich folks are super-liberal progressives while salt-of-the-Earth Ricki is a proud Dubya Republican.

Demme doesn’t take sides here – there are no heroes and no villains in this film – just a bunch of flawed, decent people trying their best to muddle through a painful situation. A lot of the time it feels like a glossier Hollywood counterpart to the director’s astringent 2008 triumph Rachel Getting Married, a movie I still can’t talk about for too long without spontaneously bursting into tears.

Meryl Streep can be counted on these days to always give a little too much, but her hammy tendencies work for the character here because Ricki is too much, overcompensating for her guilt and discomfort with false bravado. Streep’s still savvy enough to dial things back during her scenes with Kline, who punctuates his Felix Unger fussiness with occasionally lovely looks of yearning, cueing us in on how hard he must have fallen for this wild child in the first place, so many years ago.

But the film’s most unexpectedly charming performance, believe it or not, comes from Rick Springfield. Greg the guitarist hooks up with Ricki sometimes after shows, aching to take their relationship to the next level, yet she always keeps him at arm’s length. The Working Class Dog is in puppy love. Whether bare-chested beneath a vest or in a doofy skinny-tie, Springfield’s got the zen-shaggy nobility of a man completely at ease with his lot in life. Greg eventually blossoms into Ricki’s moral compass, then something more.

Ricki and the Flash ends with a massive, melodramatic burst of Demme’s sunny, pop utopia. I don’t necessarily buy that these particular characters would behave the way that they do in this particular situation, but I desperately want to believe that they could. It’s a movie about forgiveness — about letting go of hurt and finally accepting the people in your life who have let you down for who they are, not for who you wish they would’ve been. And if that sounds like a tall order, well sometimes the right Springsteen song makes everything a little easier.

But there’s an even better moment earlier, and like most of this film’s highlights it takes place onstage. Not to give too much away, but Greg has just done something incredibly kind for Ricki, which she only discovers as they begin to play a cover of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away.”

The depths of their feelings for one another slowly begin to bubble up through the lyrics, exploding ever outward as they sing to each other and play their hearts out – refusing to let the song end — the rollicking music becoming a beautiful expression of all the things these two would never dare try putting into words. It’s my favorite scene of the year, with emotions so big they couldn’t fit inside Madison Square Garden.

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