"Ricki and the Flash" is a sour movie masquerading as something more cheerful. In that attempted deception the film is both helped and hindered by an indispensable performance by star Meryl Streep.
Streep plays a woman with two names and, in effect, two identities. She's introduced as Ricki Rendazzo, the leather-wearing lead singer and guitarist of Ricki and the Flash, an energetic cover band that has called a bar in Tarzana home since 2008.
After "Mamma Mia!" and "Into the Woods," it's not news that Streep is an excellent singer and, having learned to play the guitar for this film, she really tears into standards like "American Girl," "Wooly Bully" and "Keep Playing That Rock 'n' Roll."
As directed by Jonathan Demme, whose own musical credentials are impeccable (the Talking Heads documentary "Stop Making Sense" among others), and vividly shot by Declan Quinn, these live performances are the only unalloyed pleasure "Ricki and the Flash" provides.
Ricki off stage turns out to be a trouble-making pain in the neck who gets aggrieved the way only the truly self-involved can manage. Since she is the actress she is, Streep is totally convincing at this bad behavior, which creates problems because Diablo Cody's dispiriting screenplay is all about everyone coming to love Ricki, faults and all, and that is just not convincingly done.
"Ricki and the Flash" opens with the band performing at the fictitious Salt Well in Tarzana. Never mind that her audience is old enough to have danced for Dick Clark on "American Bandstand" or that her tight band, with hunky Greg (an excellent Rick Springfield) on lead guitar, looks like it should be playing at AARP benefits. It's rock 'n' roll, and she likes it. A lot.
As it turns out, however, to follow that career path Ricki has had to completely abandon her family. Back home in Indianapolis, where she's known as Linda Brummell, there is an ex-husband (since remarried) and three now-adult children she has had no contact with in years. Though to all intents and purposes a stranger, Ricki has been a toxic influence on the family she heedlessly abandoned.
Then, as it often does in the movies, comes a phone call out of nowhere from stuffy ex-husband Pete (an underused Kevin Kline). It seems that their daughter Julie has been left by her husband and is next door to distraught.
In the real world Ricki, who couldn't even be bothered to attend Julie's wedding, would be the last person to get such a call. But in the first of numerous improbable events Ricki is soon heading back to the Midwest to hang with Julie and her dad in the gated community mansion belonging to Pete and his conveniently absent wife.
At first no one is especially happy to see Ricki, especially not Julie, who all but bites her head off with lines like "do you have a gig tonight or do you always dress like a hooker from 'Night Court'?"
Playing Julie is Streep's real-life daughter and rising young actress Mamie Gummer, a choice that does not work out well. Julie's initial anger is so unmodulated it loses effectiveness, the changes of mood mandated by the script are so unconvincing ("Sometimes a girl just needs her mother," Ricki says feebly), that the whole thing starts to feel like an acting exercise rather than a performance.
While Ricki's two adult sons, conveniently also still in Indianapolis, are also not delighted to have Ricki back, everyone's displeasure dissipates to a surprising extent almost immediately. Then the film goes about its business of giving Ricki a second chance and attempting to bludgeon us into admiring her as a true artist who had no choice but to follow her star.
Given that almost everyone in the film, including Pete's new wife and domestic paragon Maureen (Audra McDonald), is unpleasant to one degree or another, "Ricki and the Flash" tends to increasingly fall back on Streep's singing prowess. "Originally, Jonathan said three songs," Streep says in the press notes. "Well, there are ten songs in the movie — ten!" It's not hard to see why.
'Ricki and the Flash'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material, brief drug content, sexuality and language
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: In general release