It’s hardly original, to the point of cliché, to sing the praises of Meryl Streep. So much so that it’s become popular—or “cool,” even—to take the contrarian point of view, with some critics arguing that Streep is overrated, that loving her is passé, or that she has an unfair stranglehold on plum roles.
Those people are monsters.
In her latest masterpiece—a Meryl Streep star vehicle could never be merely called a “film”—the Greatest Living Actress plays a failed, though still chugging, rock star named Ricki Rendazzo (née Linda Brummell), who is called to her ex-husband’s palatial home to give emotional support to the daughter she’s long abandoned, whose own husband has just left her.
At one point in the film, Ricki sings a Bonnie Raitt-meets-high school band rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” (Three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep: “Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah/ Roma-roma-mama/ Ga-ga-ooh-la-la…”)
At another, her daughter, spotting her in her smoky blue mascara, half cornrowed hair, and leather digs, asks, “Do you have a gig tonight or do you always dress like a hooker from Night Court?” Also, that daughter is played by Streep’s real daughter, the—it turns out—ferociously talented Mamie Gummer.
Can you even handle all of this?
All of that, plus this is a film that stars Meryl Streep as a rock star, was written by Diablo Cody (Juno), and directed by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs). It’s as if someone threw Hollywood names into a hat, drew three randomly, and forced them to make a movie together. The result is wonderful.
We’re not senile, of course. This movie will not win awards—reports are that a campaign may not even be mounted for Streep—and is nowhere near perfect, leaning in a little too much to Family Stone-esque dysfunctional family tropes and relying too heavily on the Flash’s numbers to give the film its zing.
But it’s interesting and original, emotional and honest, and at times even shamelessly ridiculous, all while showcasing Meryl Streep as she devours a juicy role with a hunger she’d be excused to not possess anymore after decades of such flawless work. Yet, once again, she flips the script on our expectations. (All the more impressive considering that, by this point, we expect perfection).
While recent turns have seen her play a rotating cast of formidable women, whether a domineering matriarch in August: Osage County, a vengeful witch belting to the rafters in Into the Woods, and even the Iron Lady herself, her Ricki—for all of her on-stage showboating and channeling of Lady Gaga—is her most vulnerable characterization in years.
With her husky, hushed voice and insecurity over her position—unsure about how to commit to her status as her grown children’s mother after years of abandonment, and whether she should even try—Streep substitutes her usual grandstanding and scenery-chewing for the soulful tremulousness of a wounded person.
Especially in scenes with Audra MacDonald, who plays the stepmother to Ricki’s kids, and with Gummer, we see Ricki as a woman trying to stand up for herself and not apologize for her actions, for chasing her dreams. All the while, she’s suffering the brutal hurt and constant humiliation of being branded a bad, absent mother.
Cody, as we saw more so in the criminally underrated Young Adult than we did even in Juno, has settled into a knack for writing dialogue that manages to telegraph the painfulness that underlies so many adult relationships and the stubbornness of the human condition, while maintaining undertones of humor.
And there’s something that’s, on the surface level, absurd about Demme being at the helm of this family-drama-movie-musical given his recent output, but we should bow down to the director’s own chameleonic ambition. Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Rachel Getting Married, and Ricki and the Flash: the most absurd, and also perfect oeuvre.
Demme, the filmmaker behind one of the best concert movies ever, directs Meryl Streep and Rick Springfield, who plays Ricki’s boyfriend and guitarist of The Flash, crooning covers of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” or “Get the Party Started” by Pink. (Today is my birthday and all I want is to watch that scene on a loop, forever.)
But Demme depicts these musical sequences in a way that captures just how unpolished a real-life Ricki and the Flash would be, and how gritty the dive bars they’d play in are. And he makes the arguments between Ricki and her family and the pain they feel as authentic and claustrophobic as you’d expect from him, and the healing process appropriately cathartic.
It’s an original, adult story that stands in stark contrast to the summer offense of blockbusters and superhero flicks. Given that, there’s certainly some poetry to the fact that it’s opening the same weekend as the second attempt at a Fantastic Four film in a decade.
There are astute, tolerable critiques to be made of Streep’s career in recent years. Richard Lawson at Vanity Fair further elucidates what I mentioned earlier about her string of performances in films like August: Osage County and The Iron Lady.
“All have been Good, in the formal, technical way that Meryl Streep performances are, almost always, Good,” he writes. “But smoosh them together and take a step back, and it all kind of looks like Meryl Streep pastiche, like Meryl Streep has simply been playing Meryl Streep, culture’s reigning queen, for the last 10 years.”
She brings that same mannered gumption to Ricki and the Flash, but is reinvigorated by a character whose defeats and insecurities blare as loudly as her voice in a song that, looking back at them, might be Ricki’s anthem if she was more confident: “My Love Will Not Let You Down.”
But there’s also a sense among Streep’s greatest critics that her hyper-technical way of creating a character—you know the Streep Method: start with an accent, add a physical tic, and commit to long, aggressive stares—somehow amounts to “phoning it in.” Nonsense.
I’d argue that had anyone else crafted a Sister Aloysius as frightening and real as hers in Doubt, the groaning over Streep’s accolades for that film would’ve ceased.
Could another actress have put her own fascinating spin on the tornado of a character that is Violet Weston in August: Osage County? Arguably. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that Streep’s own interpretation was towering and masterful—and, hell, crowd-pleasing to boot. Since when is that a demerit?
Then there’s last year’s griping over Streep winning yet another Oscar nomination for Into the Woods. Um, Meryl Streep was amazing in Into the Woods. That is a role that is near-impossible to play without coming up far short of Bernadette Peters, but by seizing the dark frivolity of Sondheim’s play she created a Witch that was every bit as mischievous, sexy, and, in the end, heartbreaking.
(I will defend Meryl’s Into the Woods Oscar nod to my deathbed. Just let me watch her sing “Get the Party Started” again one more time before that happens.)
And for God’s sake let’s cheer on an actress who has amassed 18 Oscar nominations and thus has carte blanche to be completely insufferable and self-serious about “her craft” and “the art,” but who embraces silliness and commits herself to it. It’s Complicated? Loved it. Prime? Amazing. Mamma Mia!? Give me Meryl Streep jumping on a mattress singing Abba and it will be better than 80 percent of what cinema is offering in any given year. (Guys, Fantastic Four…)
But of all the gifts Streep has given us in recent years, including the perfectly imperfect Ricki and the Flash, among the greatest is Mamie Gummer, her daughter. There is something so gratifying about watching Gummer grow into a powerful actress in her own right, a refreshingly loose cannon in contrast to the measured work of her mother—but one with a knack for creating complicated, broken, fascinating women.
Ricki, hell, Meryl, gets the party started in Ricki and the Flash. How wonderful that Mamie is bound to keep it going.