In this summer of superheroes, minions, missions impossible, and the insides of little girls’ brains, it’s hugely refreshing to come across a movie that just deals with people. Messy, silly, flawed people. “Ricki and the Flash,” a lovely human comedy from Jonathan Demme, is full of them, but you may not be able to see them at first for the brassy, over-the-hill rocker-grrl leading her bar band through its paces. Lordy, is that really Meryl Streep? Yes, child; yes, it is.
Actually the role of Ricki Rendazzo allows Streep to fully and enjoyably indulge the hambone streak that has come to dominate her recent movies: A no-name rock star is still a rock star, in her own head and, on better nights, to the regulars in the bar. Because it’s a Demme movie, Ricki’s band has been cast with music-world ringers: Bernie Worrell of P-Funk and the Talking Heads plays her keyboardist, the late Neil Young sideman Rick Rosas plays bass, session legend Joe Vitale is on drums, and on lead guitar and in Ricki’s bed is Greg, played by one-time teen idol Rick Springfield, who has aged like a fine bottle of Ripple. We first see this crew playing Tom Petty’s “American Girl” in a Tarzana, Calif., dive, and as far as I’m concerned the movie could end there and I’d go home happy.
Instead, Ricki gets a call from the husband she abandoned decades earlier: Pete (Kevin Kline), a placidly bourgeois Indianapolis money-guy now married to the practically perfect Maureen (Audra McDonald), who raised Ricki’s three children to adulthood. It’s not going well for daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer), whose own husband has left her for another woman and who’s hiding in dad’s house refusing to get out of her pajamas. Can Ricki fly to Indianapolis for some belated bonding? Will Julie want anything to do with the mother who chose rock ’n’ roll over her own family?
We’ve seen this sort of plot before, but it’s always a rocker guy trying to get back with his family, which, as Ricki herself acidly notes, is more culturally acceptable. Fans of classic movies may also recognize some of the DNA of 1937’s “Stella Dallas,” in which Barbara Stanwyck played a tacky, lower-class cringe-o-mom who learned to stay out of her daughter’s upscale life. But because Demme genuinely likes people and is interested in them, “Ricki and the Flash” feels like “Stella Dallas” as remade by Jean Renoir — it’s a humanist suburban fable.
Diablo Cody (“Juno”) wrote the screenplay, and her trademark snark surfaces in the scrappy banter between Ricki — who refuses to be called by her old nom de housewife, Linda — and the rest of her estranged family. Gummer is Streep’s daughter, of course, and she’s smart enough to not go up against the matriarch; her Julie is a small, underplayed masterpiece of hardheaded fury. Similarly, the scenes with Kline are rife with the pleasure of two pros bouncing timing off each other like lemons off a kitchen splashboard.
“Ricki and the Flash” is of a piece with Demme’s breakthrough movies, “Handle With Care” (1977) and “Melvin and Howard” (1980) and it feels like a soul sister of 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married” too. The director’s in his 70s now, and doesn’t have to prove himself to Hollywood anymore; “Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia” took care of that. Like “Rachel,” “Ricki and the Flash” comes complete with a wedding, a mashup of the social castes at which Ricki shocks the bluenoses and her son’s uptight daughter-in-law (Hailey Gates). The way Demme and Cody see it, though, the solution to any American class conflict is: more Springsteen.
Yes, it’s sentimental and sloppy and predictable in outline, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other movie this summer, because what happens between its characters feels intimate and unpredictable and decent. Feel free to resist, like the anonymous couple we glimpse in the wedding scene, sitting stoically at their table while everybody else hits the floor. What makes this a Jonathan Demme movie is that you know he loves them too. But he really hopes for their sake that they’ll get up and dance.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.