In theaters Friday, Aug. 7
2 stars (out of 4 stars)
Criticizing a Meryl Streep performance is kind of like disparaging a Pablo Picasso painting.
So let’s just say this in the gentlest way possible: The acting icon probably won’t get an Oscar for portraying a down-on-her-luck aging rocker in this well-worn sapfest.
The name is Ricki Randazzo. We first see her belting out the Tom Petty classic “American Girl” with her band, The Flash, in a dive bar in L.A.'s Tarzana neighborhood. She has a charged, flirtatious banter with her guitarist (played by Rick Springfield!) and then launches into a wonky Lady Gaga cover. The word that comes to mind is "yikes." It’s not immediately clear if she’s either a has-been or a never-was-to-begin-with. But judging by the caked-on eye makeup and those long braids and that husky twang, this woman has lived hard.
Left in the rearview mirror? An ex-husband and three estranged kids. The family comes closer than she’d like them to appear after she gets a phone call from her concerned former spouse (Kevin Kline). Her daughter Julie’s husband has left her for another woman, and she’s deeply depressed. (Julie is played by Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life offspring and a talented actress in her own right.) Kline's character thinks it would be a good idea for Ricki to come back to Indiana, take a sad song, and make it better.
Alas, once she arrives home, Ricki’s grit disappears in, well, a flash. And with it, a potentially edgy and enlightening movie becomes a maudlin melodrama.
First comes the yelling. There’s lots of it, as it’s apparently been decades since Ricki returned to the Heartland. During an awkward family dinner, embittered Julie stirs the family pot of secrets; one son yells at Mom for not accepting his homosexuality; the other son smugly informs her that she’s not invited to his upcoming wedding. And they all call her by her given name, Linda. Ouch.
To be fair, she does act like a Linda. This supposed badass fixes Julie’s problems by taking her to a spa and getting her hair cut. Ta-da! Self-esteem all better now. They go out for ice cream too. She also shamelessly banters with her ex, though he’s so straight-laced that it’s a wonder how they ever got to a first date. Streep and Kline, who costarred in the 1982 classic drama Sophie’s Choice, might as well be acting in two completely different movies.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) squanders the chance to offer authentic insight into a female musician of a certain age. How many true female rock stars have been out there touring for decades as they try to juggle a home life with a spouse and kids? You can count them on one non-manicured hand, if that. That’s the world Cody should have explored. Instead we’re stuck with a woefully underdeveloped, self-pitying heroine.
Not once does Ricki ever stand up for herself or dispense wisdom from the school of hard rocks. She lets her kids metaphorically walk all over her. She doesn’t even have the nerve to snap back at her ex’s new wife (Audra McDonald), who chews her out for being a piss-poor absentee mom. All she can do is apologize, slump her shoulders, and head back to L.A.
She reaches an emotional nadir on stage back at the dive bar. In a rambling sermon, she rhapsodizes about Mick Jagger and snipes that nobody ever questions his devoted parenting skills because he’s a man. That may be so, Ricki. But he also fronts the most successful touring rock 'n' roll band in history. That particular double-standard argument is thinner than a microphone stand.
Meanwhile, Cody never spells out why Linda uprooted to L.A. and rechristened herself as Ricki, or, more important, why she never looked back. All we know about her resume is that she put out one album — as in, an actual vinyl record — eons ago. A successful career never materialized. She makes ends meet by cashiering at a Whole Foods-like grocery store. So tell Us: Why can’t she perform cover songs in the Midwest? Certainly rent is cheaper.
As for Streep? Well, she might be able to carry a tune and strum a guitar. She might even look the part. But she looks visibly ill at ease passing herself off as a poor woman’s Melissa Etheridge.
No encore, please.
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