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‘Ricki and the Flash’ is a gift for Meryl Streep and her audience

My best guess is this: commercial prospects be damned, you’d have had to handcuff Meryl Streep to a water pipe in the basement to keep her from starring in “Ricki and the Flash.”

She gets to sing all the way through the movie, for one thing, and please remember that in the larval, pre-film stages of her career, Streep did a fair amount of musical theater. For another, she gets to play the mother of her very real daughter, actress Mamie Gummer, whose character’s opening salvos at her (fictional) mother in this movie are, undoubtedly, some of the juiciest lines Gummer has ever spat out in a film. (Her usual roles in film and TV are more phlegmatic and lower in profile – see “The End of the Tour” coming in a couple weeks.)

In “Ricki and the Flash,” Streep has a script by Diablo Cody, the writer who first came to attention with “Juno.” And “Ricki’s” director is the redoubtable and genuinely distinguished Jonathan Demme, who’s been a master of richly upholstered character comedy/drama going all the way back to “Melvin and Howard.”

For his part, Demme – who proved himself a premium purveyor of weddings beset by family dysfunction in “Rachel’s Wedding” – gets to stage yet another family nuptials with people inches away from succumbing to hopeless anxiety. In this one, though, everything cornily ends with good old rock ‘n’ roll– a Bruce Springsteen song belted by Streep and her fictional band in the film who are the ones who call themselves “Ricki and the Flash.”

(Springsteen song finales seem to be big these days. If Jon Stewart can get “The Boss” to do it himself for his final show, why can’t Streep and Demme pick a beauty off the Bruce shelf to do herself?)

It’s a great part for Streep, as good in its way as aging MOR superstar rocker “Danny Collins” was for Al Pacino. What we have here, though, is an entirely different class of rocker from the Neil Diamond stand-in Pacino played. Ricki Rendazzo is the stage name of the leader of a Tarzana, Calif., cover band that plays weekends to an aging and often sparse clientele in a honky-tonk called “The Salt Well.” They play Tom Petty songs, Stones favorites, Edgar Winter songs and, when they need to appeal to an, uhh, younger crowd, they do a little half-hearted Lady Gaga.

What is truly lovable, I think, about this film is its unbridled affection for this level of American show business. There’s no condescension for this woman who made only one record that didn’t make her a star. Her life in music, nevertheless, is the only life she wanted to live, no matter how little it made her and how scant the recognition.

She left a husband and three children cold to follow her musical dream. Whatever dream of fame she might have had was never realized. But her dream of a life in music for happy audiences was very much within her grasp. When Ricki, from the stage, tells the audience that Mick Jagger has had seven children with four different women without running into mass disapproval, you know that this movie isn’t kidding about its devotion to female musicians.

Yes, she makes ends meet with her real day job, which is checking out groceries at an upscale food merchant that demands relentless smiles at the customers from the employees. But her soul goes into her music.

And what’s left of her heart goes daily to the guitarist in her band, another refugee from middle-class family life played affectingly by, yes, Rick Springfield. He’s such a decent sort as her romantic and musical partner that to help her pay for plane fare to a family engagement, he’d even hock his vintage 1968 Gibson guitar. (Talk to your friendliest local neighborhood musician; that’s love, brother.)

It’s not hard to love Streep in this role – or to lose sight of the dedication and brilliance of the actress playing it. She’s so good that she’s noticed how many female rock veterans sound a little spacey and under the influence when they’re just talking ordinarily. (Listen, sometime, to interviews with the Wilsons of Heart and Joan Jett.) Without her guitar in her hands, this woman seems to stagger a little as if locomotion of any kind without it is a little foreign.

The only things we see her drinking are margaritas and the like. She and her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) get a little stoned on weed but we don’t see them getting there. Seeming a little out of it is just what the shrinks like to call her ordinary life “affect.”

She winds up back in Indianapolis with the husband and three children she abandoned when her ex-husband calls her with the news that her only daughter has become suicidally depressed when her fresh new husband told her that he’s leaving her for another woman. That’s the role played by Mamie Gummer, who spends half the film with a wild unwashed bedhead and pajamas – even when the entire family goes out to dinner.

Diablo Cody’s dialogue here has dollops of cleverness but isn’t oppressively overstuffed with it. There is, for instance, the moment when our heroine compares her heart to a Big Mac; there’s also her reply, at her grown son’s wedding, to another guest’s question of where she met the groom: “C-Section.”

The film isn’t great. To be honest, it’s not nearly as good as Demme’s version of wedding dysfunction in Jenny Lumet’s script for “Rachel’s Wedding.” (Lumet is the daughter of director Sidney.)

But it’s so genuinely and unremittingly lovable, it doesn’t have to be great. By the time it’s over, you’ll be grateful for it.


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