Meryl Streep is so extraordinary she can do anything—anything, that is, except play an ordinary person. She’s only tried to do so twice in her 35-year career as a leading lady, and in both cases she was called upon to embody an unsatisfied suburban wife, first in 1984’s Falling in Love and almost three decades later in Hope Springs (2012). The understatement both parts required simply did not become her; you could see one of the screen’s most ebullient performers deliberately dimming her inner light and turning the burners down to low. It was as though she could not tell the difference between reserve and dullness.
In Ricki and the Flash, a quirky little movie released in the dog days of August, Streep again takes on the suburban housewife part, but this time with a twist. We meet Streep’s character only after she has fled her life as an Indianapolis wife and mother to make a new life in Los Angeles—25 years after. She abandoned three small children and a loving husband and transformed herself from Linda Brummell into a would-be female Jon Bon Jovi named Ricki Rendazzo. Linda/Ricki is forced back into her old life, at least temporarily, when her adult daughter Julie attempts suicide.
What happens in Ricki and the Flash is exactly what you think will happen. It’s a standard-issue runaway-parent-comes-home story. Her children bitterly upbraid her; one of her sons can’t believe she doesn’t know he’s gay and the other doesn’t want to invite her to his wedding. Her husband’s second wife criticizes her. Her ex-husband cannot help himself from yearning for the love of his youth.
It’s watchable, but it’s pretty clichéd and rather timid. That is somewhat surprising given that the director is the ur-1980s hipster Jonathan Demme and the screenwriter is former-stripper-turned-Oscar-winner-for-Juno Diablo Cody. Every other character on screen is basically a chess piece to be moved around to give Ricki obstacles to overcome or challenges to face. The only interesting person here is this deluded AARP rocker, whose leather jacket and tattoos are not meant for a Hoosier mother-of-three-grown-kids but a low-rent Valley Girl 20 years her junior.
She makes a living working as a cashier at a Whole Foods-type establishment, but has a steady gig playing at a strictly-for-locals bar in Tarzana. She has a dreamy age-appropriate boyfriend whom she holds at arm’s length. All this just might make her seem even more tiresome, except for one key thing: She’s really, really talented.
Indeed, the very first thing we see is Ricki performing a knockout version of Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” We learn as the movie progresses that she actually recorded a solo album, which obviously didn’t sell. If Ricki had maybe had a break or two, she might have ended up performing in arenas, not bars. Which means she’s not crazy. Selfish and self-absorbed and foolish and even a little monstrous, certainly. But it’s clear that she left her family for a reason more interesting than just boredom, or fear, or a fantasy romance.
She doesn’t suffer much guilt over what she’s done. In part, that’s because she knows her ex-husband married a strong woman who has taken care of the children—even though she both despises and fears her replacement. Ricki is a narcissist, there’s no two ways about it; but she’s only really alive when she’s singing and playing guitar. In some ways, she’s ruined her own life due to the choice she made. But it’s not clear she really had any other choice.
All this adds an interesting layer to an otherwise uninspired story. And it gives Meryl Streep a chance not only to live out the fantasy of being a mini-rock-star herself onscreen—she performs no fewer than 12 numbers in Ricki and the Flash—but allows her to breathe exuberant and vivid life into this big-personality character as no other actress can, not now and not ever.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.