As a screenwriter and director, Lorene Scafaria has shown an interest in characters at critical life crossroads. “Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist” explored young people finding love and their identity, while the filmmaker looked at middle age concerns through the lens of a genre film with “Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World.” And now comes “The Meddler,” featuring her oldest protagonist yet, a widowed woman starting life anew in Los Angeles, where she moves to be closer to her daughter. And while slight, the film’s genuine feeling and overall comedic consistency has enough breezy charm to make it go down easy and pleasurably.
The whirling center of the movie is Marnie (Susan Sarandon), a recent New Jersey transplant to the west coast, who is adjusting to life in The Grove. The death of her husband Joe still looms in the background, but Marnie can’t stop for a moment. She’s an energized, Beyoncé-loving fuss-budget, driving her screenwriter daughter Lori (Rose Byrne) up the wall with her unceasing phone calls, voicemails, text messages and surprise visits. And these are made worse by Marnie’s well-intentioned, but misguided attempts to give advice, trying to help Lori who is nursing a breakup to a rising actor (that Marnie can’t stop mentioning) and an uncertain career.
But when Marnie isn’t hounding Lori, and bringing her bagels, she puts her talents toward anyone else who enters her orbit. So that means getting involved in the wedding for her daughter’s friend Jillian (Cecily Strong); encouraging her ever helpful Apple Genius Bar advisor Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael) to return to school and driving him to classes when she learns he doesn’t have a car; and visiting an elderly woman at the hospital who seems to have no one else checking in on her. And then there’s the motorcycle driving, chicken raising, retired cop Zipper (J.K. Simmons, doing his best Sam Elliott impression), with whom she enters a fledgling relationship. It might seem a lot to handle, but Marnie has got nothing but time on her hands, and an indefatigable stream of energy.
As all of this might suggest, Scafaria’s film is predictably quirky in tone, and episodic in structure. However, it doesn’t have any grand aspirations to be anything more than the sum of its parts. While that means “The Meddler” does sag a bit in the middle third, taken on its own very modest terms, the picture works for what it is: a movie about moving on. Marnie needs to acknowledge her incessant outreach to everyone around her is a mask for her own mourning, and Lori also has unresolved issues that need attending to. It’s not deep, or profound, but it works, and often enjoyable.
Much of this is down to the cast, starting with Sarandon, who seizes this big, gag- filled role — all too rare for a 68 year-old — hugs it close, and delivers it with lots of heart and humor, complete with a massive Joy-zee accent. Again, Scafaria’s material isn’t rich or sophisticated, but when played with the kind of gusto Sarandon puts into it, it works well. Lucy Punch is a scene stealer as Lori’s superficial pal Emily, even if she is underutilized (something that seems to happen any time Punch is in a movie — someone please give her a leading role). And even though he’s channeling a different actor, it probably doesn’t need to be said that Simmons is delightful nonetheless. The only disappointment among the ensemble is Byrne, not because of her work, but because the part requires her comic talent to be muted, tipping more toward drama.
Put all together, the pieces add up to a film that’s satisfying if fleeting. Scafaria’s script is filled with a plethora of very good moments, but one wonders how much better they might have played out with more space to develop. “The Meddler” introduces a fairly big world of characters — young L.A. brides and moms-to-be and parents; Zipper’s cop pals; world of extras on movie sets; lonely widowers and older divorcés (including Michael McKean in a small part) — that you’re often left wanting more with this loose assembly of personalities. One wonders what this material might have looked like as a TV series instead of a film, some of these characters do create enough of a presence that you may feel you want to take a detour down their narrative avenues to see where it goes next.
But it’s the movie as it stands that must be assessed, and “The Meddler” is earnest and honest, perhaps much like Marnie. The character is eager to help and be involved, and the film carries much of that same spirit: it will try to please you with one thing, but if that doesn’t work, it has another way to make you smile just around the corner. And just like Marnie, it’s hard to resist. [B-]