By day, Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) works as a cashier at an upscale natural-foods market, ringing up exorbitant grocery hauls for well-heeled liberals; but by night, she's the leader of Ricki and the Flash, the house band at a dive bar in the Tarzana neighborhood of Los Angeles, where the slovenly regulars love her as she churns out covers of American rock standards with the help of her rhythm guitarist and sort-of beau Greg (a perfectly cast Rick Springfield). There's not a lot of hope left in the holding pattern of her life, but even as reading glasses threaten to replace her rock-star shades, Ricki has no intention of giving up her black-leather lifestyle. It's only when she receives an unexpected call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) that we learn she was a very different person once upon a time: Her youngest daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep's real-life daughter) is severely depressed after being discarded by her husband, and Ricki -- once Linda, Indianapolis mother of three -- must return to the family she abandoned decades ago for dreams of rock & roll stardom.
Both director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody have visited this dysfunctional territory before: Demme in Rachel Getting Married, about a newly sober young woman (Anne Hathaway) who returns home to a family who still resent her, and Cody with her ripe-for-rediscovery gem Young Adult, about a "successful" teen-book novelist (Charlize Theron) who faces her demons during a visit to her old hometown. It's a shame, then, that their combined talent isn't able to capture lightning in a bottle this time around. There are still flashes of greatness, though, in Cody's knack for sharp character details and pungent irony, especially when it comes to the culture clash between barely working-class Ricki and her moneyed family. In this film, the cruel snobs aren't old-money stuffed shirts, but green-living limousine liberals who treat populist Republican Ricki as an unwashed pariah, all while offering her a choice of vegan entrees with a smile. But the Diablo in the details isn't enough to make this disappointingly flabby movie congeal.
The biggest problem is that Ricki's life is stuck in an eternal stalemate. She'll never achieve her rock & roll dreams, and the people she left behind will never completely forgive her, so the story is just an endless grind of family members bitterly sniping at Ricki and her misguided attempts to make amends. Plus, there's the added problem that she is an essentially powerless character whose major decisions are always a response to the actions of others. At any point in this film, Ricki could choose to either stay in Indianapolis or return to L.A., and her decision would have no impact on the forward motion of the plot. There's a glimmer of a theme here involving making peace with who the people in our lives actually are, rather than who we wish, beg, and demand that they become. But that theme ultimately boils down to "resignation," and an audience isn't going to click their heels together in joy when a movie's aftertaste is resignation.
The one bit of joy, however, is hearing Meryl Streep sing. She's done it before, in such films as Postcards From the Edge and Into the Woods, but it's such a pleasant surprise every time. And the numbers Ricki performs with the Flash -- including one particularly memorable tune called "Cold One," which was created for the movie by songwriting duo Johnathan Rice and Jenny Lewis -- are genuinely house-rockin' (having Rick Springfield as your guitarist doesn't hurt, either). Her voice here is somehow rough, raw, and as sweet as mesquite honey, and she legitimately gives Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams a run for their money. Even if we don't fully believe Ricki's physical presence, even if all of her tattoos and bangles look a little silly when contrasted with Streep's regal bearing, the actress's famously multi-accented "Streep throat" provides the character with a sense of authenticity. The movie Ricki and the Flash can be safely skipped over, but the soundtrack album deserves a listen.