It’d be easy to write a hateful takedown of Ricki and the Flash, and I imagine that’s what people want to read. That’s what I’d want to read, something to confirm my suspicions and support my decision not to see a movie with a silly title and Meryl Streep rocking side braids on the poster. I have an uvula-jerk reaction to seeing aging actors in rock star make-up — be they Sean Penn, Tom Cruise, Denis Leary, or Meryl Streep — the pervading sense that this famous person finally had the juice to make us sit through their drama kid dress-up game instead of just going to karaoke. Normally, I avoid these movies like they were holding clipboards outside Whole Foods. And when Ricki and the Flash opened with Meryl Streep’s live sung, husky-voiced rendition of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” I nearly ran out screaming.
And yet… It’s true, there’s plenty to hate here, and I won’t try to convince you otherwise. AND YET… I feel a deep compulsion to defend this movie. It’s deeply hokey but entirely earnest.
Meryl Streep plays Ricki Randazzo, not a rock star so much as a singer in a tacky cover band who takes awkward jabs at Obama between songs. Which we learn when the camera pans out from Meryl singing “American Girl” with Rick Springfield (!!!) to the crowd, a collection of washouts and burnouts at “The Salt Well” in Tarzana. Ohhh, I get it, she’s supposed to be kind of embarrassing. Ricki has to leave her seven adoring fans behind in California when she gets a call from her buttoned-up ex played by Kevin Kline (why does Otto from A Fish Called Wanda keep getting stuck with all the straight-man roles these days?) who tells her that their daughter’s husband has left her. The daughter, played by Streep’s real daughter, Mamie Gummer, is now suicidal. She’s stopped washing her hair, wears slippers everywhere she goes, and snarkily tells it like it is in every direction, basically becoming every Diablo Cody protagonist ever.
Ricki arrives to her now-straitlaced (of course) husband’s mansion (of course) to find her daughter throwing “you were never there!” tantrums (of course) and calling her estranged mother by her first name (what’s it going to take for screenwriters to stop doing this, do we have to make a supercut?). All the ingredients are in place for a Sundance-approved Dysfunctional Family Dramedy™ (alt titles: This Must Be The Flash, Extremely Flash And Incredibly Ricki). Trust me, I hate dysfunctional family dramedies — cloying, cutesy ensemble pieces where I can practically hear my mom muttering “awkward!” after every shrill gag (these being the kinds of movies I usually save for mom visits).
Despite all of that, despite Diablo Cody’s hokey, riot grrrl sensibilities — “like, what if you did something mildly unconventional and the WHOLE SCHOOL saw?” –there’s something earnest and sweet and genuine about her writing that makes me unable to resist it, no matter how much I despise some of the hacky, adult contempto clichés. I honestly think Diablo Cody writes those in there because she likes them, not because she expects us to. It may be schmaltz, but it’s not smarm.
Unlike Michael Bay, who seems to mentally divide the entire population into “slut” or “clown,” or Aaron Sorkin, whose high-handed disdain for a world that isn’t as smart or as evolved as he is comes through in every smarmy one-liner, Diablo Cody seems to find something to like in everyone, and that’s a very special thing. She writes conflict without straw men, situations that make you angry without demonizing other points of views. There’s a character with a tea party flag tattooed on her back and another planning a gluten-free vegan wedding, and neither are the bad guy. That seems like such a simple touch, but in a genre defined by smugness and easy moralizing, it’s refreshing.
The only real villains are the nameless, bemused bystanders, the square world who can’t handle how real her spunky protagonists are keeping it. Look at them, in their dumb suits and SUVs, they’ve probably never even written their favorite punk bands on the sidewall of their Chuck Taylors! (By the way, Jonathan Demme makes it easy for Meryl and Mamie to look like iconoclasts, keeping them constantly surrounded by literal suits, even in situations that wouldn’t seem to call for it, like family dinners and coffee shops in Indiana).
I think her inherent kindness is what makes Diablo Cody able to write family so well. You can hate all the “honest to blogs” and hamburger phones from Juno, and I’d agree with you, but if you weren’t at least a little bit touched during the JK Simmons/Ellen Page scenes, you’re a stronger viewer than I. Your family is supposed to be lame and embarrassing, and have terrible music taste that makes you cringe. In Ricki and the Flash, not only is Diablo Cody writing a tacky, cheesy, embarrassing mom who nonetheless just loves you so damn much, it feels like she might be one. It helps having Meryl Streep (or JK Simmons) to embody that, sure, but there’s an undeniable maternal tenderness toward her characters.