Back before his movies won multiple Oscars, Jonathan Demme made small, rough-edged films like Melvin and Howard (1980) and Something Wild (1986). While their heroes were often deadbeats and losers, the director's treatment of them was warm, even loving. After she won an Oscar for charming the public with Juno, Diablo Cody wrote Young Adult, a character study of a loser that was so cold it repelled audiences. Now Demme and Cody have teamed up on Ricki and the Flash, a sort-of-comedy about yet another loser, played by an actress who won the public's heart long ago.
The film poses two questions right off the bat: Will Demme's warmth compensate for Cody's more cynical tendencies, or just struggle with them? Will Ricki transcend the god-awful-looking dysfunctional-family comedy its marketing appears to be selling to an underserved older female audience? The answers are "sort of" and "fairly often." Ricki and the Flash is a quieter, better film than it initially appears, but it's uneven, never quite committed to its smarter inclinations.
About two decades ago, Ricki (Meryl Streep) abandoned her husband and three kids in Indianapolis to take a shot at rock stardom. The results: a single album, a regular gig playing covers at a pub in the San Fernando Valley, a retro-rocker style that gets her stares from squares, and a band-member boyfriend she refuses to call her boyfriend. (That last is played by every girl's rock-star boyfriend in 1981: Rick Springfield, soulful and effective.)
Then Ricki's ex (Kevin Kline) calls to tell her that their daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep's real-life offspring), is in deep distress after splitting from her husband. Ricki reluctantly scrapes together cash for the flight home, where she finds her discarded family ensconced in upper-middle-class comfort and conventionality. Wacky culture-clash comedy ensues — yet there's also an undercurrent of believable pain and possibilities for genuine reconciliation.
From scene to scene, Ricki can feel like two different movies — one taking shots at easy satirical targets, the other portraying a more complex situation. The outrageous Ricki is our protagonist, yet, for the first third of the movie, she's too caricatured and downright obnoxious to like. To say Streep throws herself into this role is an understatement; at times, her performance borders on hamming, as it did in August: Osage County. That brash self-dramatization suits Ricki's character, but the script takes too long to reveal her more vulnerable sides. Cody makes up a lot of ground with a late monologue reminding us how differently the world views men and women who ditch their kids for their art, but we needed this nuance earlier in the film.
Even when Cody's script is at its most cartoonish, though, the performers tend to redeem it. Kline never seems like a stuffed shirt, despite his shiny McMansion, and the wife who replaced Ricki (Audra McDonald) is a strong presence in her own right. (When she and Ricki sit down and talk out their rivalry like adults, you almost want to applaud — this kind of scene is so rare in mainstream domestic comedies.) Finally, while Gummer's character is underdeveloped, she embodies a furious sadness that seems to come from a much deeper place than the standard plaintiveness of a jilted woman in a rom com.
If Cody's pet self-indulgence is mean-girl humor, Demme's is overlong musical sequences. The numerous scenes of Streep and Springfield rocking out don't much serve the narrative, yet they do give the film a pleasant buzz. Cody's screenplay may zero in on the failure of Ricki's ambitions, but these scenes sneakily suggest that she's actually living her dream — performing for a crowd of washed-up barflies who love her. Beneath all the imperfectly resolved family drama, Ricki has a less expected message: Perhaps "loser" is in the eye of the beholder.