One of my very favorite movies ever made is The River Wild. I have a major love for the entire early to mid nineties action thriller genre, but this one stands out— though that’s easy to forget. I mean, a woman and her family on a river rafting vacation get hijacked by loose criminals and are forced to help them down the river to safety? That plot sounds ridiculous. And it easily could have been a bottom-of-the-barrel over the top, silly action-fest, save for one thing: Meryl F*cking Streep. Well, okay, a few other things, too: David Strathairn, Kevin Bacon, John C. Reilly, and director Curtis Hanson also help elevate this movie to actual greatness. But it really helps to have Streep there. Such is the case with Ricki and the Flash, which could easily have been a shallow, fluffy, nothing of a movie, but was made something so much greater (if still not achieving actual greatness) by Streep’s performance.
Ricki Randazzo is a woman whose dreams of being a rock star were so large, she left her husband and three kids to move to California and make it all happen. Now decades later, a Whole Total Foods checker by day, San Fernando Valley dive bar band leader by night, it’s clear that nothing ever actually did ‘happen.’ Ricki— whose rocker hair and choice of profession starkly contrast with her full-back “Don’t Tread on Me” tattoo and her sporadic anti-Obama rants— may have the talent to be a rock star (and she does—my GOD did her guitar boot camp pay off), but her career has peaked and permanently plateaued playing classic songs to aging barflies (and reluctantly learning the occasional Lady Gaga song to keep those youths at the back of the bar happy). When her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) calls to ask for her help after their daughter was left by her husband, Ricki finds herself back in Indianapolis, thrust back into the family she abandoned.
Much of the movie is centered less around actual plot than it is focused on the contrasts between broke, rocker Ricki and her uber-preppy, uber-wealthy family. As she reunites with her sons and her ex, there’s an interesting and uncomfortable place she occupies, right between wanting her children’s love and forgiveness, but not being willing (or, really, not even recognizing that she needs) to apologize for anything. Most of the movie, though, is dedicated to the relationship and unspoken chemistry between Ricki and her daughter Julie (played to heartbreaking perfection by Streep’s real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer).
There’s nothing surprising about Ricki and the Flash, except of course for Meryl Streep’s ability to cover Springsteen so spectacularly. There are no twists, no big reveals. But there don’t really need to be. Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) wrote a solid, if by-the-numbers, script, and Jonathan Demme, who is as well known for his rock documentaries as he is for his heavy-hitting narrative films (Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs, etc.) was the perfect choice to direct. Streep gets a lot of help form her supporting cast—Kline, Gummer, Nick Westrate, Audra McDonald, Pajiba 10 alum Sebastian Stan, and even Rick Springfield as Ricki’s boyfriend and bandmate—but she’s the one that makes this movie. Whatever made her take this role, whether she wanted a break from the Oscar race or she just wanted to be a rock star for a few months, it’s lucky for us she did. It’s definitely not her finest vehicle, but it’s something different and something fun. The movie may not really be Streep-level quality, but it lets her play, and it doesn’t let her down. And she does raise it up. Watching Streep shred the guitar, sing Tom Petty, and banter with her daughter is a better use of 100 minutes than most things you could do.