It has been seven long years since Jonathan Demme came out with what is popularly known as a “woman’s movie” (don’t say “chick flick” — there’s a difference) with “Rachel Getting Married.” In many ways, “Ricki and the Flash” feels like the sequel to that earlier film. Both movies examined the behavioral dynamics of straying women who come back to the family fold due to a crisis. In “Rachel” it’s a wedding; in “Ricki,” a divorce.
Demme is best known (arguably) for 1991 serial killer thriller “The Silence of the Lambs,” so I’m still getting over the surprise of seeing Demme so adept at portraying ordinary women in family situations. In both “Rachel Getting Married” and “Ricki and the Flash,” they talk loudly, get their hair done, bond with each other in shopping mall aisles. See? Ordinary.
“Rachel Getting Married” features Anne Hathaway as Kym, a recovering drug addict who checks out of rehab for her sister’s wedding, which is held in their childhood home. In “Ricki and the Flash,” the focus is on 60-something Meryl Streep as a rock chick who never made it. Ricki could be Kym, 30 years down the line. They’re both bored to death by the American suburban lifestyle, and they both strayed, sporting faux leather and layers of thick eye make-up to prove it. They easily write off gated McMansions, but it’s more difficult to cut themselves off from their families. So they go home. Demme shoots both films as though he were totally mesmerized by what happens after the initial awkwardness of hugs, putting down luggage and the exchange of “Hi, it’s been a while.”
For Ricki, it’s a hard landing. Her real name is Linda Brummel and she adopted the stage name after ditching her husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), and their three kids in Indianapolis to pursue a musical career in L.A. Decades later, Ricki has some gigs but has to work full-time at a grocery store to pay the bills. Meanwhile, Pete and the kids have thrived under the loving care of Pete’s second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald). The two sons have moved out and daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter) got married, but a recent divorce has left her broken and suicidal. Pete calls Ricki to get on the next plane out, because Julie needs her and, besides, Maureen is out of town on a business trip.
Demme’s observation of family relationships is defined by his positive portrayal of women: They are all inherently good-willed, which is not something you see often in movies. The story (written by Diablo Cody) presents dozens of opportunities for Ricki and Maureen to lock horns, including when Maureen returns early from her trip find her bathrobe being worn by Ricki. But Maureen simply tells her to keep the robe, and though the pair are initially wary of each other, it never gets ugly. Ricki is well aware of what a wonderful wife and mom Maureen has been over the years, and Maureen is secretly supportive of Ricki for having followed her dream, even at the cost of family estrangement and poverty.
Less engaging is Ricki’s conservative take on politics. She hates Obama, loves the American troops, and has a touch of racism that surfaces when she has one drink too many. Interestingly, the movie brings that up without pursuing it — and Ricki doesn’t try to defend herself either.
Streep is stunning here as the aging rocker, though at this point in time Streep can do “stunning” blindfolded and handcuffed. According to the production notes, she practiced playing guitar for two months to prepare for the role, and her rendition of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” is something to see. As the song goes, she “couldn’t help thinking there was more to life somewhere else.”
An additional brilliant touch is Rick Springfield, who appears as Ricki’s bandmate and boyfriend. Ricki might have lost that big house and three-car garage, but she got her gigs and a kick-ass rocker dude. (“Jessie’s Girl,” anyone?) Sounds like an excellent trade-off to me.