If Bonnie Raitt had spent the last 40 years working at Hot Topic, she’d probably look a little bit like Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep), an aging rocker who divides her time between gigs at a roadhouse bar in the San Fernando Valley and day shifts at a yuppie food emporium. Despite leers from an unlikely proportion of average citizens, Ricki wears her chunky heels, tie-dyed pants, and wristband tattoos like a badge of honor, but she only seems to fully inhabit her own skin on stage, husking her way through blues-rock covers of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Her Two-Face-style mane of hair—half a trio of braids, half a flowing side part—transparently underlines the identity crisis at the ultimately throbbing heart of Ricki and the Flash.
The film itself often feels like the product of conflicting impulses. The front end of Diablo Cody’s screenplay is artificially quippy and awkwardly barbed, setting up Ricki as an anti-Obama, Support Our Troops mouthpiece surrounded by a family of composting, Kumbucha-drinking liberals. Many years after abandoning her family to live out her artistic dreams, a broke Ricki is summoned to Indiana, where her daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer), has become suicidal in the wake of a brief marriage and hasty divorce. A series of uncomfortable reunions ensue, as Ricki, née Linda Brummell, attempts to restore bonds with her prim ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), and their two sons, engaged Josh (Sebastian Stan) and gay Adam (Nick Westrate).
Cody enacts these scenes with settings (elite restaurants) and dialogue (“You’re acting cray-cray”) that seem dated and ill-suited to her characters, but her hothouse arguments are sharply modulated, allotting both Ricki and more minor characters equal helpings of dignity and pretension. Director Jonathan Demme grasps the well of feeling of Cody’s script and eventually harnesses it in his own image, enhancing some of the film’s sitcom dramedy with probing close-ups and clever blocking (repeatedly undermining perceived relational dynamics by, for instance, pitting a divorced couple against their children). As Ricki and the Flash progresses, certain plot threads (Ricki’s conservatism, a spat between newlyweds) are abandoned, and a pleasingly rambling rhythm prevails, dwelling on Flash performances and Ricki’s noncommittal romance with her guitarist, Greg (a preternaturally gentle, watery-eyed Rick Springfield). Reverent attention is paid to elements of sound design and the relationships between bartenders, patrons, and the entertainment.
Once the film abandons its schematic setup and embraces a more naturalistic narrative and emotional approach, the film plays like a hybrid of two of the director’s best films, the ne’er-do-well comedy Melvin and Howard and the profoundly empathetic Rachel Getting Married. The lengthy wedding sequence that serves as the culmination of Ricki and the Flash is something like the evil twin of the nuptials in Demme’s last narrative feature: Rather than a homespun, effortlessly multicultural affair, this one is garishly pretentious in its mix of lavishness and perceived eco-friendliness. Rather than another excuse for on-the-nose culture-clash humor, the setting becomes a final stage for Ricki to conquer, and the result is a sequence of sustained, lump-in-throat catharsis. If the collaboration between Demme and Cody is undeniably bumpy, much of its uneven, unresolved energy (epitomized by Streep’s creaky performance as an alternately nervous and determined artist) is a boon to their film’s finale. Ricki and the Flash emphatically reinforces its concern with the anxieties and resentments always swirling around familial love, even as the unifying power of music wins the day.