If you’re a devoted fan of a particular musician or group, chances are you’ll eventually shell out for the “rarities” collection that features snippets and fragments that were either retooled or abandoned entirely once it became clear that they were never going to become actual songs. With “Ricki and the Flash,” screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jonathan Demme get together for a jam session that’s all snippets and no hit singles.
There’s an idea for a movie here, about a woman who abandons her husband and kids to pursue her rock and roll dreams, only to come home later for a family crisis; throw in some confrontations and some redemption, and presumably you’ve got a story. What we get from Cody and Demme feels more like an assemblage of almost-characters in an almost-story, resulting in a very disappointing almost-movie.
Certainly the role of Ricki Rendazzo, formerly known as Linda Brummel, seemed on paper to be another great showcase for Meryl Streep, and the actress does what she can with a role that’s not only sketchy and inconsistent but also forces her to wear the screen’s most hideous braids since Ewan McGregor in “The Phantom Menace.” Streep has a gift for making us believe in her performance from moment to moment even when, by the final encore, we realize that we don’t believe in the woman she’s playing.
Decades after ditching her family to attempt to make it big in Los Angeles, Ricki gets a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline, reuniting with his “Sophie’s Choice” co-star) to return to the Midwest to visit their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life progeny), who’s suicidally depressed after being abandoned by her husband. There’s a weird “Stella Dallas” vibe to this section, with bankrupt grocery store cashier Ricki oohing and aahing over Pete’s gated-community lifestyle, but given that Ricki was once married to Pete, it would make more sense for the character to be returning to her past rather than beaming in from another planet. Ricki bull-in-a-china-shops her way through the whole movie, as though she had never experienced Pete’s world before fleeing it.
(Speaking of the class struggle, the film includes a scene in which a veteran rocker is gobsmacked to learn that the drinks at a wedding are free, despite the fact that he’s probably attended a few nuptials in a professional capacity over the years.)
The visit also allows Ricki to catch up with her sons: Adam (Nick Westrate) is gay and embittered, while Josh (Sebastian Stan, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) is passive-aggressive and about to marry snotty Emily (Hailey Gates) in a ceremony about which Ricki has not been informed and to which she has not been invited. (Did I mention that the movie makes Ricki an arch-conservative and then does almost nothing with that information?)
“Ricki and the Flash” is the kind of film where characters do a 180 from angry to adoring on a dime when the scene calls for it, where complicated emotional conflicts are settled with one pleasant conversation and where even the lead character’s ultimate act of generosity — involving, you guessed it, Ricki singing — is really, at its heart, another desperate attempt to become the focus of attention.
(In Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” the long musical sequences completely interrupted the flow of the storytelling, but since “Ricki” has so little plot or momentum to speak of, the interludes featuring the titular band have nothing to interrupt.)
There’s one scene in which Ricki and boyfriend Greg (Rick Springfield, currently having a moment between this and “True Detective”) communicate mutual respect and adoration with their eyes while making their way through “Drift Away,” but for the most part, the musical bits are inoffensive but negligible. (To its credit, the movie never pretends that this band is too good to be playing covers in the San Fernando Valley, even though Streep’s backing players include legends like Bernie Worrell and the late Rick Rosas.)
There are moments that work in “Ricki” — an awkward family dinner, a scene featuring Charlotte Rae as Pete’s senile mother, a confrontation between Ricki and Pete’s second wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) — but they play like discrete bits of pleasure that don’t add up to anything. It’s fine to forfeit elements like stakes or suspense for a character piece, but when the characters are this vague, there’s nothing on which to hang your hat (or headband, for that matter).
Future editors of Meryl Streep Lifetime Achievement Award montages will no doubt find good use for the sequences where the star croons Pink or Bruce Springsteen, but until then, “Ricki and the Flash” represents a B-side cut for all involved, one not worth playing.