A feel good chicks’ flick that gravitated from irritating the bejesus out of me to seeing me shed a tear, The Meddler stars Susan Sarandon as a well-to-do widow with a lot of time of her hands.
Her character is Marnie, a woman whose Italian-American husband passed away almost two years ago and left a big hole in her heart and in that of her single daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), a television script writer. Since her husband’s death, Marnie has relocated from New Jersey to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter, but Lori feels she is being suffocated by her mother and lets her know that. Basically, there are no personal boundaries and Marnie even visits Lori’s therapist (of course you haven’t made it in America unless you have one of those). The ever helpful and optimistic Marnie can’t help herself and won’t take “no” for an answer. In fact, she approaches each day as a new adventure, embracing every opportunity to make a new friend or strike up a conversation with a stranger. She goes further than that, dishing out money and time to one of her daughter’s gay friends and to a 20-something sales assistant at her local Apple store.
Marnie also volunteers at the local hospital. The only thing she won’t face head on is her husband’s passing. She shuns attempts by single men of a certain age to befriend her. And then, unexpectedly, she meets a former cop, Zipper (JK Simmons). Their first meeting is hardly all that memorable for her, but then she bumps into him again and clearly there is a mutual attraction. All the while though she continues to juggle the many and varied “assignments” she has largely created for herself, foremost amongst them meddling in her daughter’s life and future, including Lori’s all but nonexistent love life.
For writer/director Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist), The Meddler arose out of her personal circumstances. Her boyfriend had just dumped her and her larger than life father had died. She hated her job and Los Angeles and, as she puts it, “every thought in her head”. Just when she wanted to pick up and go anywhere else, her mother sold her house in New Jersey and moved 5,000 kilometres to be closer to her. Scafaria says she has been raising her mother in LA ever since. She claims her mum spends a lot of time by herself and Scafaria has a lot of guilt … and resentment about the guilt and guilt about the resentment, with layers of love in between. And Scafaria wanted to be honest about it – about how lonely she was, how mean she could be and how annoying her mother could be, but also how generous and giving.
So this is the latter’s story, but with a little more adventure and trouble and fun and even a love interest. For Scafaria, “it’s an apology and a pep talk and a reality check and a bunch of wish fulfillment.”
This is a syrupy sweet tale that, at first, really annoyed me. In particular, it was what I would term the affected, Sarandon’s almost whining “New York” accent; at least that is how I perceived it. It was driving me crazy, to the point where I felt like throwing something at the screen. Then I saw the interaction between Marnie and Lori as something that would readily fit into a television sitcom – a series of 30 minutes episodes less the commercial breaks, kind of like an updated Odd Couple.
But there was no getting away from the fact that both Sarandon and Byrne can act and act well. Dare I say it, their characters’ personas grew on me, their interactions became more “real”. I became more invested in what I was seeing, sugary sweet or otherwise.
Here was this fractured fairy tale, because that was how I regarded The Meddler, with its larger than life (there is that term again) characters, eating into my psyche. I get the fact that these personas are probably inflated from reality – too pushy or too good or too perfect (a case in point is the smooth, mustachioed love interest, Zipper), but you couldn’t help but care for them and about them. Incidentally, Simmons – like Sarandon and Byrne – also displays his acting chops. A more divergent persona from his raging Oscar-winning turn in Whiplash, I don’t think you could get.
So, there it is … and yes, even a bit of precipitation from the eyelids before it was all over, perhaps remembering what my own mother was like. Rated M, The Meddler scores a 6½ to 7 out of 10.
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, JK Simmons
Release Date: 19 May 2016 (limited)
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television