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Meryl Streep Stoops but Conquers In "Ricki and the Flash"

Meryl Streep Stoops but Conquers In "Ricki and the Flash"

After all this time, it's a pleasure to watch Meryl Streep sweat. The grand dame of American acting has, over the past decade or so, played a lot of imperious, powerful women — a magazine editor, a mother superior, a hectoring matriarch, a prime minister. And she's been fun to watch in those roles, largely because it's great to see Meryl Streep, now in her mid-60s, enjoying a kind of career dominance that was previously unheard of for actresses her age. But somewhere in all that fun, we sort of lost what made Meryl Streep Meryl Streep, didn't we?

Her performances — towering things in lesser movies, like "August: Osage County" and "The Iron Lady" — have all been good, in the formal, technical way that Meryl Streep performances are, almost always, good. 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.

Which is why it's such a refreshing delight to watch her in Jonathan Demme's new film "Ricki and the Flash," a rueful family comedy that has Streep playing a down-and-out rocker gal trying to reconnect with the family she walked out on 30 years earlier to pursue her dreams of rock 'n' roll glory. Yes, finally, Meryl Streep is playing a character who is at the bottom of the pecking order, who has to scramble and struggle to get her way in the door. When's the last time we saw Meryl Streep really work for something like that? Seemingly reinvigorated by the challenge, Streep gives a fascinating, mannered, sad performance, playing a woman who could have been a big star, or could have been an unassuming family woman, but wound up neither. Streep is careful not to punish Ricki for her failed ambition, but she registers an emptiness, a regret, masked by a casual pose, that chills the air around her. It's a great piece of acting, tough and textured and full of interesting tics that manage not to be too actor-y.

There's also, of course, the singing. Ricki and her band (including a strong, sympathetic Rick Springfield, who between this and "True Detective" is having a very interesting year) perform covers of classic rock tunes, with a couple current-ish pop hits mixed in, to keep the kids coming to the down-and-out, but cheery, Tarzana, California, bar where they've got a regular gig. We've seen Meryl Streep sing before, whether it was burning the barn down at the end of "Postcards from the Edge" or warbling around the Aegean in "Mamma Mia!," but we've never really seen her sing. In her previous efforts, she was an actress who could sing. Here, emboldened by Demme's skills as a veteran concert film director, she's an actual singer; her voice has power and control and genuine grit. Seeing Meryl Streep wail away on "American Girl" or "My Love Will Not Let You Down" is a visceral thrill. (Also good: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and an original song, "Cold One," by Jenny Lewis.) I left the screening with the thought that, had she just made some different decisions back in the 1970s, Streep could have been the real article, a rock-star hybrid of Stevie Nicks, Chrissie Hynde, and Bonnie Raitt.

So, she's great, and Demme's film blares beautifully during the performance scenes. Pity, then, that so much of the rest of the film, which was written by Diablo Cody, is pat and trite, failing to create a credible story to go along with the raw feeling conjured up by Streep. When Ricki finds out that her daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep's real-life daughter), has been left by her husband, she scrapes some money together to fly from L.A. to Indianapolis, where her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), is living in a McMansion with his second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald). Ricki's family, especially her children, are wary of her reemergence into their lives — they're still scarred and angered by her abandonment, and have soured into caustic, unpleasant adults. Like, really unpleasant. I suppose Sebastian Stan's dopey, about-to-get-married Joshua is fine, but Julie and her sanctimonious gay brother Adam (Nick Westrate) are real wretches, drawn in Cody's broad strokes, particularly in one painfully clunky dinner scene, as snide caricatures of family dysfunction.

This is a step back for Cody, whose directorial debut, "Paradise," may have flopped, but whose last job writing for another director, 2011's "Young Adult," was an acerbic, thoughtful gem, a dark and transfixing story about a bad person who was still very much a person. Here, unfortunately, Cody falls back on the "Family Stone"-ish thinking that if characters are just routinely, almost cartoonishly terrible to one another, it will eventually tell us something unsparing and truthful about how people relate. A lot of "Ricki and the Flash" feels almost juvenile in that way, from Julie's hokey dyspepsia to Pete's telegraphing cardigan sweaters. (It's never believable that Ricki and this cliché of Midwestern squareness were ever married.) The film does, on occasion, mine some effective currents of emotion, but that's usually owed more to Streep's prodigious digging than Cody's script.

In that way, "Ricki and the Flash" is a disappointment. A film as pedigreed as this — Demme and Cody, Streep and Kline re-uniting 33 years after "Sophie's Choice" — with such an intriguing premise could have been a knockout. Instead, it's an often peculiar but still satisfying minor work. The film's ending is joyous, a heartening, energetic swell of music and sentiment. But what's come before doesn't resonate the way it might have had Cody and Demme really put their heads together and come up with something possessed of a bit more depth and detail. And not detail like, say, the fact that Ricki is a vocal Republican/libertarian. (She is, and it's oddly hilarious.) The movie has plenty of that. What it's lacking is a true, idiosyncratic humanity, one that might match Streep's complicated, but unfussy, performance. Meryl's got the melody down, all she needed was the harmony.

More From Vanity Fair:
• Meet the Woman Who Inspired Meryl Streep’s Ricki and the Flash Character
• Watch Meryl Streep Sing and Play Guitar in Ricki and the Flash Scene
 Meryl Streep, Real-Life Superhero, Is Appealing to Congress for Equal Rights
• Here’s Where Meryl Streep Found the Confidence to Become an Actress

Photo Credit: Jim Spellman/WireImage