Marnie Minervini meddles. That’s just what she does. In Lorene Scafaria’s charming second directorial outing, the appropriately titled “The Meddler,” Susan Sarandon brings life and wit to her Marnie, a meddling mother who just doesn’t know how to do much else than, well, meddle. The twist of “The Meddler” – if you can call it that, since “The Meddler” is delightfully straightforward most of the time – it’s that Marnie’s interference in the lives of those she loves (especially her daughter, Lori, played by Rose Byrne) is mostly welcome, occasionally appreciated and not so misplaced to be jarring. The “meddling mother” trope has often been trotted out on the big screen, typically to comedic effect, but Scafaria flips it (gently) on its head to deliver a tale of a meddling mom and the daughter who (shock of all shocks) really does need her help.
Scafaria pulled directly from her own life to craft “The Meddler,” building the film’s storyline around similar experiences she had in the wake of her own father’s death, which coincidentally happened just as she was about to start directing her first feature, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.”
In the new film, Scafaria’s surrogate is Lori, a television writer who hates everything about her life, from her job to her nonexistent love life (an incident with an ex-boyfriend looms large over most of the film, with Scafaria finally introduces us to him in fully mortifying fashion) to the fact that her mother has moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles to be closer to her, mostly spurned onward by the recent death of her husband, Lori’s dad.
Both Lori and Marnie are mourning in different ways, and Marnie’s zest for life and good humor even in the face of tremendous pain is sparkling, enthralling and just plain fun. Sarandon is as appealing as ever here, and it’s her indomitable spirit that makes Marnie such a firecracker. She’s a total delight on screen, and she appears to be having a great time doing it, giving Marnie a believably brassy accent and happily tooling around Los Angeles, armed with an iPhone and an appetite for random conversation.
Lori, however, is struggling. Byrne digs into the role with both grit and charm, and even as we’re fully aware of how messy she is and just how many (so many) mistakes she’s making in her life, it’s impossibly not to root for her. Of course, no one can root for her as much as her own mother, and that’s precisely why Lori so frequently sends her away. Still intent on helping others, Marnie redirects her energy towards a host of new friends, from Lori’s own gal pals (including Cecily Strong and Casey Wilson) to a smart young man she meets working at the Apple Store (Jerrod Carmichael, both very sweet and deeply bewildered by Marnie’s plans to overhaul his life) to a Harley-driving ex-cop named Zipper (J.K. Simmons).
“The Meddler” may be rooted in Marnie and Lori’s relationship, but it’s Sarandon’s show, and the film exists as mostly a record of Marnie’s unconventional grieving process, capped off with wild acts of kindness.
Big, lovable characters aside, the actual plot of “The Meddler” is a bit thin. The inciting incident – the death of Lori’s father and Marnie’s husband – happens off-screen nearly a year before the film’s action picks up, and while reactions to the event continually spiral outward, it leaves the film without much of an engine. The biggest thing that actually unfolds in the film is Lori temporarily taking off for New York City for work, leaving Marnie to try her hand at being alone, really alone, for the first time in a very long time.
Lori’s absence heightens Marnie’s feelings, even the bad ones, which she keeps believably bottled up most of the time, while freeing Sarandon to explore a range of emotional options. She shines, but things get even better upon Lori’s return (which briefly involves the addition of terribly ill-suited fiance in one of the film’s most amusing bits).
The charm of “The Meddler” isn’t the kind that benefits from big pushes forward in narrative or massive plot movements, but it revels in heart-warming humor, vibrant characters and what’s clearly a deep affection for its story. “The Meddler” doesn’t try for over-the-top shows of affection, instead opting for the kind of warmth and charm we don’t see nearly enough of on the big screen, alongside two generous and well-rounded roles for its leading ladies. Take your mom to see it.
“The Meddler” opens in wide release this Friday.