Early on in “Ricki and the Flash,” Ricki (Meryl Streep) gets a call that disarms her before she’s even decided to pick it up. With smoky eyes, braided rocker hair and a swagger that suggests skin that’s as thick as her leather pants, this doesn’t seem like a woman who would back down from a challenge.
She hesitates more than once to pick it up – you get the sense that she’s either become accustomed to being scolded by the voice on the other end of the line, or has just given up on dealing with that other life completely. It’s a small but telling moment in a lovely film laced with intensely human details that allow the audience the opportunity to actually know its characters in ways that so many films come up short.
The voice on the line is her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and father of her three grown children. He’s asking her to come back to Indiana. Their daughter’s husband has left her, she’s a wreck, and Ricki needs to help.
Only a few minutes into the movie, we’re well on our way to understanding Ricki. We’ve just seen her hold the attention of a small but enthusiastic audience at a Tarzana neighborhood bar as the lead singer of a rock cover band and then suffer through but tolerate her day job as a clerk at a Los Angeles Whole Foods stand-in with a smirk and an attitude.
Although there are surprises to come, it’s one of the more precise and effective introductions to a character in recent memory. There’s no exposition. No voiceover. It’s all story advancing character specifics that are amplified by Streep’s layered performance as this broke 60-something woman with the spirit and soul of a rebellious, stargazing teenager.
When her cab pulls up to Pete’s palatial suburban mansion she gets out, bags and guitar in hand, and asks him for the fare. He’s not surprised.
Such a concoction could only come from (or at least make it to the screen via) the mind of “Juno” and “Young Adult” screenwriter Diablo Cody, cinema’s songstress of defiant women.
Ricki’s arrival is a tumultuous one as she attempts to reintegrate herself, ever so briefly, in the lives of the family she left and attempt to restore the broken Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real life daughter). Everyone has moved on and no one is afraid to tell her that.
It sounds like the stuff of melodrama, but in the hands of director Jonathan Demme, the story chugs along naturally and subtly with the characters – from an awkward showdown at a fancy restaurant to a nostalgia and marijuana-fueled night of bonding over stories and home videos.
In fact, all of the relationships are given an unexpected texture and depth, from the ex-husband’s new wife and surrogate mother to the children Maureen (Audra McDonald) to Ricki’s more-than-a-friend bandmate Greg (Rick Springfield).
But it’s Gummer, Streep and Kline who you wish the camera spent more time with, especially together. Also, beyond the mesmerizing physical resemblance between the real-life mother and daughter pairing, Gummer and Streep both disappear into their respective roles. It helps, probably, that they don’t pair up on screen in this capacity often.
The only real contrivance is a late in the film wedding and a third act montage of growth that feels rushed where nothing else did.
Ultimately, spending time with these people is pleasant, lived-in, honest and even thought-provoking. And when the dialogue stops, there’s a fun, golden not-too-oldies live music soundtrack to hum along with too.
“Ricki and the Flash,” a Sony Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic material, brief drug content, sexuality and language.” Running time: 102 minutes. Three stars out of four.