As a hook, it’s pretty much irresistible. Watch Meryl Streep, who apparently can’t pour herself a cup of coffee without taking on a new accent and getting an Oscar nomination for it, strap on a guitar and unleash her inner rock goddess. That, right there, is about half a dozen reasons to shell out for a cinema ticket. Who cares if the film itself is any good?
Well… it’s better than you might think, and not as good as it could be. Streep is phenomenal – and, sure, worth the cost of the ticket on her own – and the film that surrounds her is sharply witty and never less than entertaining, but Diablo Cody’s screenplay treats the plot’s darker emotional undercurrents with rather too light a touch, and the feelgood ending, while not unmotivated, arrives a little too quickly.
Streep plays Ricki Rendazzo – or rather, a former housewife called Linda from Indianapolis who abandoned her husband and young children and moved to Los Angeles in the hope of becoming a rock star. At the start of the film, she’s fronting a covers band in a dive bar in the San Fernando Valley and working a day-job as a checkout clerk in a high-end (but low-paying) supermarket; the plot kicks into gear when she’s called back home by her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) to help her now-grown-up daughter (Mamie Gummer), who has had a kind of breakdown following the end of her marriage.
Did I mention that this is a comedy?
The early encounters between Ricki and her estranged adult children, in fact, are among the best things in the film. Gummer, in particular, is a whirlwind of rage and resentment, and yet she somehow manages the very difficult trick of making her character’s edgy bitterness towards her mother funny. She and Streep – her real-life mother – play off each other beautifully, and their gradually-thawing relationship is surprisingly touching. Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate as Ricki’s sons have too little to do, but do it very well; the restaurant dinner-from-Hell at which Ricki sees her adult sons for the first time in years is bracingly sharp-edged and, again, a perfectly-judged comedy of (bad) manners.
The trouble is, there’s more to this story than we’re ever allowed to see. At the centre of the film is a societal double-standard: a man would not necessarily be condemned for turning his back on his children in order to focus on his career, but for a woman it’s considered one of the ultimate sins. Cody’s screenplay even has Ricki make that point explicitly in one scene; we don’t get enough sense, though, of the force that drove Linda to walk away from her family and reinvent herself as Ricki, particularly given that it’s clear throughout that she does love her children, even if she doesn’t always know how to deal with them. Character details are raised and then dropped; we learn that Ricki is a conservative Republican who voted for George W. Bush twice, and the film (admirably) doesn’t condemn or mock her for it, but Cody doesn’t really explore the interesting contrast between Ricki’s conservative politics and her free-spirit lifestyle. Kline is perfectly charming as Ricki’s ex-husband, but there’s little sense of how two characters so unlike each other that they could have come from different planets could ever believably have been married to each other.
And then there’s Audra McDonald as Ricki’s ex-husband’s second wife. She’s billed fourth, behind Streep, Kline, and Gummer, she has a handful of Emmy nominations and about four hundred and fifty Tony Awards, and she basically has two scenes. She’s great, and she brings a very entertaining passive-aggressive acidity to her showdown with Streep, but she’s one of the best actors of her generation and she has two scenes. It’s like buying a Maserati and then only ever driving it around a supermarket car-park. The role, as written, perhaps doesn’t need to be any bigger, and possibly needs someone with a certain gravitas in order for the character’s big scene with Streep to work, but still. Two scenes. McDonald is a luminous presence on screen – the camera loves her – and she’s someone who really should be playing meatier roles rather than bit-parts.
What saves the film – and, you won’t be surprised to learn, what saves the day at the plot’s final turn – is the music. I said earlier that the main reason to buy a ticket was to see Streep pick up a guitar and rock out, and that’s where the film unquestionably delivers. Is there nothing she can’t do? She is absolutely believable as a woman who lives for her music, she plays a mean guitar, and she fronts a band which features Rick Springfield, Rick Rosas, and Bernie Worrell, and gets away with it. Director Jonathan Demme shoots the band’s performances with loving care; they’re genuinely exciting, right down to Streep’s appropriately rough-around-the-edges vocals. Even though you know fifteen minutes into the film that Ricki, in the end, is going to heal her broken relationships with her children via the transformative power of her music blah blah blah, it’s a pity there are a couple of chapters that seem to be missing from Cody’s screenplay before that finale rolls around. Fortunately, the performance scenes are enjoyable enough that they paper over the screenplay’s cracks, at least while you’re watching them.
Overall? It’s great fun, but not a great film. It’s worth seeing for Streep and Gummer, Streep’s scene with McDonald, and (above all) the band, and you’ll walk out of the cinema with a smile on your face, but there’s a fair amount in the screenplay that doesn’t quite bear close scrutiny.
And brace yourselves, because somebody somewhere must be thinking about trying remake it as a jukebox musical for the stage. I wonder – does Patti LuPone play the guitar?