There are a lot of lovely and gratifying things about “Ricki and the Flash,” Diablo Cody and Jonathan Demme’s movie about the titular musician (Meryl Streep) who begins to reunite with the children she abandoned in Indiana years ago after her daughter Julie’s (Mamie Gummer) marriage ends abruptly. It’s a sharply observed story about how people judge women who claim the same liberties as men. The plot doesn’t require people to behave irrationally to advance the action. And most unusually, Streep’s Ricki is a member of an extreme demographic minority in Hollywood: a sympathetic fictional Republican.
In recent years, one conservative response to the state of the entertainment industry has been to exit it, focusing instead on independent movies such as 2014’s “God’s Not Dead,” which made $64 million at the box office against a budget of just $2 million. With results like that to go on, the independent route might be a smart one to walk. But “Ricki and the Flash” is a valuable reminder that mainstream movies could build lively conservative characters, and do it with respect and verve, by developing these people just as they’d sketch in anyone else.
Ricki’s politics aren’t a central part of “Ricki and the Flash,” but they do distinguish her from the rest of her family, and so Cody’s script takes care to make them consistent, explain where some of those beliefs come from and define their contours — sometimes against the expectations of her family.
We learn in an early scene at the bar where Ricki and her band perform regularly that she’s not wild about President Obama: “We’ve been the house band here at the Salt Well since 2008,” she tells the crowd. “That’s the year we elected you know who.” After playing a cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” Ricki takes the opportunity to explain how proud she is to have been “born in the greatest country on Earth,” echoing a sentiment that’s often accompanied by a complaint that liberals don’t believe in American exceptionalism.
Once she’s back at her ex-husband Pete’s (Kevin Kline) house, where Julie has come to stay after her husband left her and she attempted suicide, it comes up that Ricki voted for George W. Bush twice in part because she saw it as a choice to support the troops. That’s the kind of statement that might be used to paint a character as a shallow thinker in another project. Instead, we learn that Ricki’s brother died in Vietnam: There’s a poignant scene of her lighting a candle next to a photograph of him in his dress uniform, the American flag she was given at his funeral folded neatly on the mantel beside it. Whatever Ricki’s feelings about the use and treatment of American uniformed personnel, she came by them honestly.
Even more significantly, “Ricki and the Flash” does an excellent job of exploring the ways in which middle-class liberal comfort might come across as gauche and entitled to someone who is working-poor.
“That actually is my total paycheck, $447.74,” Ricki remarks to a customer at the Whole Foods-like store where she works as a checker, after the man makes a joke about spending his whole salary on a grocery run. “Oh, and you’d like $150 cash back.” That insult turns to injury when the exchange earns her a reprimand from her boss Troy (Aaron Clifton Moten), a younger African American man who tells her “I need you to satisfy and delight the customer … Remember: joy.” If this is emotional labor, $447.74 isn’t nearly enough compensation for it.
Ricki is aghast at the house Pete built for his new wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), which, in one of the nice, subtle choices in the movie, Demme shoots to look like an over-lit model home, given individuality only by badly mismatched floral arrangements and inspirational and humorous placards that decorate the kitchen. Having money hasn’t given Pete and Maureen taste.
Ricki’s children and their stepmother have a tendency to use their wealthy politics against her, gussying up their anger in morality. Maureen offers Ricki money for a plane ticket home, a supposedly generous gesture that only serves to communicate how badly she wants Ricki gone from the family Maureen feels she kept together. When Ricki learns that her son Josh (Sebastian Stan) is engaged to marry his girlfriend Emily (Hailey Gates), whom Ricki didn’t know existed, the couple try to pass of her exclusion from the impending wedding as a political choice: “It’s going to be very small, very green,” Emily tells her. (The wedding invitations, to Ricki’s amusement and slight disgust, have seeds embedded in them and offer “Vegan” and “Vegan/Gluten Free” menu options.)
Ricki may not always have great taste, either: “Do you have a gig tonight, or do you always dress like a hooker from ‘Night Court’?” an angry Julie asks her when Ricki first arrives back in Indiana. But “Ricki and the Flash” shares a lot of her sympathies and dubiousness about whether McMansions, conspicuous grocery consumption and twee wedding details actually represent some sort of authentic American dream.
And while the movie has an early, awkward exchange between Ricki and her son Adam (Nick Westrate), who is gay, “Ricki and the Flash” doesn’t treat Ricki as though she’s a homophobe or a nasty person. It transpires that Ricki and Adam are so badly out of touch that he didn’t tell her when he decided he was gay, not bisexual. Adam interprets his mother’s hope that he might marry a woman as a rejection of his sexuality, and perhaps it is. A kinder way to put it might be that Ricki hopes for her son to have the easiest possible life. But by the time Josh and Emily’s wedding day arrives, and Adam introduces his mother to his boyfriend Desmond (Beau Sia), Ricki is able to tell him: “Adam, I’m so glad you met someone. Particularly someone so handsome.” The story is about how a mother and a son communicate, not a mother’s rigidity and a son’s identity.
It’s true that the plot of “Ricki and the Flash” isn’t driven by politics: The characters are riven by personal conflicts, not ideological differences. But the movie is the clearest example Hollywood has given in years of how to build a conservative character without requiring her to abandon her politics as a sign of personal development, or sacrifice them for likability’s sake, like Ron Swanson, the genial libertarian played by Nick Offerman on “Parks and Recreation.” Ricki’s family needs her. So, for the sake of vibrant debates in movies and a broader representation of America, does Hollywood.