The Meddler (2016)
100 min., rated PG-13.
At worst, “The Meddler” could have been as shrill and nails-on-the-chalkboard obnoxious as “Because I Said So”—that 2007 comedy with Diane Keaton as a smothering mother—but it is smarter, more humane and more amusing than that. As annoyingly doting as the film’s meddling mother can be, Susan Sarandon is a pleasure to watch and makes the character more identifiable than a one-note joke. As written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (who last pulled double-duty with 2012’s “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” and before that wrote the script for 2008’s “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist”), the film is imbued with a sunny, light touch and an honest understanding that eventually—it does not happen right away—wins one over. Despite its early flaws, “The Meddler” is more of a warm and cozy love note to mothers everywhere than Garry Marshall’s “Mother’s Day.”
Uprooting from New Jersey to Los Angeles, widow Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) wants to be close to her screenwriter daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). She is set for life by her late husband’s fortune but doesn’t really know how to spend her time besides hanging out at L.A.’s shopping mall The Grove, taking in a movie, and buying iPads from the Apple Store’s Genius Bar. Marnie also drops in unannounced on Lori, whose wounds from a failed relationship are still fresh, and lets herself in with her spare key, although at least she never shows up without bagels. When Lori demands that they need boundaries, Mom still leaves long voicemails as if her life depended on it and starts going to her daughter’s same therapist (Amy Landecker), patient confidentiality be damned. When Lori tells her mother that she has to go to New York to shoot a TV pilot early in the morning, Marnie tries to keep busy, doing favors for everyone she meets, like helping with the wedding for Lori’s lesbian friend Jillian (Cecily Strong), volunteering at a hospital, and giving a lift to 23-year-old Apple Store worker Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael) who wants to go back to school. Marnie can lend her generosity everywhere to distract herself, but sooner or later, she will have to confront her grief and maybe find a hobby.
“The Meddler” really is writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s pride and joy. It’s so personal for the filmmaker that she was inspired by her own relationship with her mother and shot the film in her very same house where she wrote the script. Apart from strains of one of those bumbling, sitcommy musical score here and there, the film’s annoyance and frustration factors do level off. It lets Marnie talk an awful lot but also listens to her. From the moment her voice-over as a voicemail comes in with a “Noo Joisey” accent that might sound like a broad affectation on an SNL skit, Marnie could have turned into a caricature in lesser hands, but there is context to why she is so doting and meddlesome. Moreover, Susan Sarandon is spirited and just plain endearing, and with an actress of her stature, she is fully capable of locating moments of real heartache with depth and subtlety.
As a rule, Rose Byrne is perpetually a dependable joy, and she gets to tap into a different side of herself. As Lori, she must act depressed and is gone during the middle section, but she’s fully relatable in her exasperation and finds a mutual closeness with her mother. In a role that might have been offered to Sam Elliott first, J.K. Simmons is a charmer and creates a lovely chemistry with Sarandon as retired police officer Randy “Zipper,” working as security on a movie set, who drives a Harley Davidson, listens to Dolly Parton, and has a chicken coop at home. As Lori’s friends who never actually share any screen time with her, Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch, Casey Wilson and Sarah Baker are given little to do and mainly on hand to take Lori’s place and praise Marnie.
Initially, “The Meddler” isn’t as adorable as it thinks it is. Plain and simple, how nicely the film works is predicated on how much one likes Marnie. Also, amidst some of the more uncomfortably acute observations between mothers and daughters, particularly one in which Marnie is invited to N.Y.C. to be on the set of Lori’s show, there is a bit too much attention on a subplot involving a serial killer loose in the city. There's a wacky payoff when it should have just remained a minor detail underscoring Marnie’s coddling over her daughter. Fortunately, Lorene Scafaria’s compassion for this mother character who must mirror her own mother does become infectious. A quiet empathy creeps in and balances out the earlier, more irritating stretches once Marnie’s denial of her own grief subsides. And that delightful Sarandon; this movie allows her to shine.