Susan Sarandon stars in, and as, The Meddler, an agreeable comedy-drama from Lorene Scafaria, who based Sarandon’s character, Marnie Minervini, on her own mother (though I presume the story she inhabits is fictionalized to a degree). Whatever else can be said, I liked it better than Scafaria’s 2008 screenplay for the painful and interminable Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and her 2012 directorial debut (which she also wrote), Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. (The idea for a rom-com drama about the end of the world might sound fresh, but it’s too much of a downer to work.) The Meddler mostly works, though I’m not sure that it should.
There’s no denying that the idea of a chronically meddlesome 60-odd-year-old widow from New Jersey moving to Los Angeles to be near her daughter has all the makings of a cringe-inducing sitcom. That Scafaria — with considerable help from Sarandon and Rose Byrne — manages to (just barely sometimes) avoid that is a notable accomplishment. It’s even more notable because the first part of the film looks like it could be everything you might fear. But the fear that a slide into a sappy, bad comedy could happen at any moment over the course of the movie may be one of its hidden strengths. For instance, when we get to the obligatory “old folks getting high” scene (in this case, just the one old folk), it manages to skirt the kind of cluelessness that almost brought last year’s I’ll See You in My Dreams to its knees.
At first, Marnie seems pretty obnoxious — chattering non-stop, insinuating herself into daughter Lori’s (Byrne) life, wanting to make Lori her “hobby,” constantly leaving voice mail messages like some rambling stream-of-conscious discourse, etc. The trick is that the rambling clearly is part of the grieving process of a lonely woman coping with the death of her husband. It’s a way to keep the silence at bay. It’s also a shrewd means to deliver expository information about her situation, like the fact that her husband left her very well-off. But primarily it makes Marnie more sympathetic than annoying, while also cluing us in on the fact that her intentions are good. She’s also — thanks in part to her (never specified) financial status — absurdly generous in a disarmingly offhand manner. Here is another aspect of the film that skirts making a disastrous wrong turn.
The film moves at a surprising rate, covering a lot of ground, characters, plots and subplots in 100 minutes. There might even be a little too much. (I have yet to figure out why Michael McKean is even — barely — in the movie.) The trip to New York, where Lori is shooting a pilot for the TV show she wrote, may be inessential, but it sets up the film’s funniest joke and subtly changes the daughter-mother dynamic. The inevitable romance for Marnie is pleasant, even if there’s a sense (especially, after last year’s Grandma and I’ll See You in My Dreams) that J.K. Simmons is who you cast when you can’t get Sam Elliott. The startling thing is they get two meet-cutes — and they both work. Better still, the development of their relationship smoothly transitions from comedic to believable, full of unexpected nuance. (Watch closely. Small touches say much.)
I think the film’s secret weapons are that it has no villains and that Marnie turns out to be much more self-aware than she might first seem. Her generous impulses — toward a helpful Apple Store employee (Jerrod Carmichael) and her daughter’s friend (Cecily Strong) — have no ulterior motives, and Marnie clearly realizes that she isn’t buying friends. The core of the movie is that it truly seems to like its characters and think that people are basically good. That shouldn’t be a rare thing in movies, but it is. Rated PG-13 for brief drug content.