Creating a film with solid drama beside good humor is tough. It’s harder still to balance them against a complicated character so they don’t sprawl lopsided, and send the audience home feeling satisfied. The bittersweet, beautifully acted “Ricki and the Flash” does all that with surprising grace and economy.
At the center of the movie is Ricki, a veteran rocker played in a juicy, fearless performance by Meryl Streep. Her Ricki has a lowbrow, right-wing, hippie-stoner vibe — like a female Ted Nugent. Even advancing into AARP territory, a musician like this draws many moths to the flame, and there’s sexual desire in her life, but her main passion is for music.
When she plays and sings, she connects to the world much better than through her frankly clumsy stage patter. Ricki long ago left the Midwest for California and stardom. She’s still pursuing a slim version of that old dream. Playing for her small fan base with her loyal bar band doesn’t pay the rent in her dumpy apartment — her cashier work at a posh food co-op does, nearly — but she adores it like nothing else in life.
That includes the family she resigned decades ago. After bearing three children she left the domestic orbit, stepped up to every available stage out West and never turned back. The big-hearted script is by Diablo Cody, whose “Juno” and “Young Adult” were darkly humorous takes on the need for imperfect women to evolve. She lays her characters’ foibles bare with heart and hope. Here she suggests that avoiding maternal responsibilities didn’t make Ricki a bad person, but a flawed one deserting a duty she didn’t feel was in her range.
In wonderful deadpan, Kevin Kline plays Ricki’s ex-husband Pete, a pleasant square who remarried and became a vastly successful Indiana business owner. When they met they were clearly opposites attracting. He is as calm and drab as Ricki is rough-edged, a logician capable of every task except piloting relationships. With one of their grown sons about to marry soon, beleaguered Pete calls in Ricki’s help to calm their daughter Julie. She is hysterical at her own impending divorce, and Pete needs her to participate in the big, fussy wedding ceremony without shrieking.
The film takes a while to get going, like a slow cooker. It warms up when Ricki enters Pete’s high-gloss mansion to confront her history, becoming increasingly entangled in her old family’s lives. The mom-daughter dynamic is pure nitroglycerin at first. Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer is ideally cast as Ricki’s frenzied girl. She resembles her eternally impressive and engaging mother in action, quirky looks and occasionally scalding temper. Ricki helps Julie stifle her rage over her new adult life gone awry. Apparently communicating with a grown child is easier for Ricki than rearing kids.
As Ricki becomes a nurturing force, things become quasi-civilized. If Julie can stand Ricki, well, Pete can feel OK around her, too. His wife away on business, Ricki’s romantic crooning brings such a joyful sound to the big, quiet house, and by the way there is medical grade cannabis in the refrigerator. What happens and doesn’t happen is not to be reported, but to be savored as it occurs on-screen. Be aware, though, the wedding feels like the most awkward ceremony you’ve ever attended.
“Ricki and the Flash” is rueful and deeply entertaining, hilarious and deeply sad, often at the same time.