Around the time Whitney Houston died there was a lot in the media about how her going off the rails the way she did was a ‘waste’ – as if implying she owed it to the world to stay on the straight and narrow because her incredible voice made so many people happy.
The same question might bubble up in your mind while watching Ricki and the Flash. Meryl Streep is one of the best actresses of the past 40 years – maybe ever – and after giving us one masterclass of the craft after another in films like ”Sophie’s Choice” and ”Silkwood”, she seems to have hung up her ‘serious actor’ socks more recently to have a good time, hamming it up (even singing) in movies like ”Mamma Mia” and ”Into the Woods”.
Of course it’s not that simple – Streep’s always made fluff (”The River Wild”, ”Death Becomes Her”), and she hasn’t abandoned being the most astounding inhabitant-of-characters working today altogether (”The Iron Lady”, hopefully the pioneering feminist Emmeline Pankhurst in the forthcoming ”Suffragette”).
But you can’t help but feel disappointed watching her throw herself around a stage singing songs with Rick Springfield in what amounts to little more than a road movie comedy.
She plays the titular Ricki, a 60-something woman who left her straight-laced husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and three kids years before to run away to LA and sing in a rock band. She’s still suffering for it, about to declare bankruptcy and with her children in various states of hatred and contempt for her.
But when her daughter Julie’s (real-life Streep Jr Mamie Gummer) fiance leaves her and Julie turns into an emotional wreck, Pete tells her to come urgently to help bring Julie back from the brink.
Ricki lands in the well-heeled, sooty nosed suburbs of Connecticut like a bull in a China shop with her side braids, leather clothes, heavy make-up and rocker accoutrements, proceeding to turn everyone’s life upside down in ways both good and bad and also feeling like she’s facing the crime of abandoning her family as she finally deals with its fallout.
It leads to the single, promising insight the movie has during a scene where Ricki talks about how society forgives when a father forgets a birthday or school recital or even walks out, but how it’s a very different story for a mother. You have a satisfying sense Ricki and the Flash is finally getting somewhere, that this is the movie you want to see – and the kind of thing Streep does brilliantly.
Instead, it descends back into love story musical comedy territory where you know everything that’s going to happen as each scene opens. When she climbs up onto the stage with her band at her son’s extremely privileged and whitebread wedding during the final scene – the rich guests looking on at the electric guitars and bandanas in horror – you just know the band’s going to win the crowd over and make everybody love them, which of course they do (in a choreographed dance number, no less).
Even in her most disposable movies (”Hope Springs”, ”The Giver”) Streep couldn’t give a bad performance if she tried, and her brilliance is probably there in ”Ricki and the Flash” too – the character just doesn’t demand it of her. Normally she’d be the only reason to see a film like it, but it’s the rarest of beasts where not even Meryl Streep can make it worth seeing.