Something rather quietly wonderful is happening in the wretchedly titled movie “The Meddler.” The best and most important thing it does is continue a development begun in the Blythe Danner movie “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” Both movies give beautiful and wonderful 70-something actresses rich and lovable films that provide both some of the best roles of their lives.
Let me assure you that almost everything about “The Meddler” is better than you might think it is from the movie’s condescending title. The woman it seems to be about is less a maternal “meddler” in the affairs of her daughter and others than a widow who has spent so much of her life investing herself in the fortunes of others that she has no clear idea anymore how to invest in her own.
So what Marnie does, after bedeviling her daughter in L.A. when moving there from New Jersey, is a whole lot of all-purpose freelance mothering of people she meets. When a smart young man at the computer store, for instance, is gracious about helping her develop computer skills, she convinces him to go to college. And when she finds out he has no car, she drives him.
When a lesbian friend of her daughter’s regrets that she and her partner can’t afford the $13,000 it would cost to have a big wedding, Marnie puts up the money.
She’s no meddler. She’s offering needed mothering to the world at large, not just the daughter who can’t begin to handle it all.
There is, at the beginning of the movie, a lot of minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour sitcommy intrusiveness and imposition in Marnie Minervini’s (Susan Sarandon) relationship to her daughter (Rose Byrne). But that dreary cliched device quickly fades into insignificance while the movie figures out vastly more interesting things to do with this woman who’s trying to learn how to handle all the love and money she was left with when her husband died.
It takes about a half hour, true, for that to blossom, but eventually it rises above the sitcom cheesiness. What you’ve got after that is a movie that beautifully puts Sarandon to work.
Sarandon, who’ll be 70 in the fall, is as lovely as Danner was in “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” And in both films, the lives presented are affecting, even rending. (Danner’s a bit more than Sarandon’s, in truth. In Danner’s case she was playing a widow while being, in life, the real widow of successful TV executive Bruce Paltrow.)
“The Meddler” was written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, whose last film was the creative Steve Carrell-Keira Knightley comedy “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.” Scafaria has a gift for greatly exceeding the grimmer expectations of high-concept plots that look as if they’re a rocket ride into cliche.
Her script for “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” is a wry and startlingly accurate teen comedy about a long pub crawl by graduating seniors. Its way of dealing with music and social class and teen reality was often first-rate for the kind of thing it was.
“The Meddler” turns into the exact sort of thing such a writer might turn out years later while dealing with the lives at the other end of life (i.e. her mother’s). I suspect that the lousy title and hopelessly sitcommy premise and initial approach were necessary appurtenances to get the movie financed. What happens after that is a real movie takes over – starring one of our most charming actresses,
As good as she has always been, Sarandon has seldom been as good on screen as she can be, not even in “Dead Man Walking” and “Bull Durham.” Many decades ago, I saw her co-star with the majestic Eileen Brennan in the play “A Couple of White Chicks Sitting Around Talking” and her virtuosity in live theater was eye-opening.
What happens here is a well-written character who is inhabited fully from a time of life easy for movies to ignore.
When Marnie, the well-fixed Jersey widow, can’t get her daughter to cooperate in a full partnership in her daughter’s life, she displaces all her instincts elsewhere.
And, to her shock, finds herself feeling an interest in another man two years after her husband’s death. It is there that Scafaria hits the jackpot.
Not only does she have J.K. Simmons fresh from his Oscar, as a potential partner for Sarandon, she writes him as a nicely eccentric figure full of weird angles – a retired cop who keeps egg-laying chickens in his backyard and refuses to deal with his grown daughter’s hostility even though she lives only minutes away.
“Everyone calls me Zipper,” he says. It’s actually his last name, you see. It also makes an obvious suggestion of where their relationship might go after the business of the film’s plot is over.
He’s contrasted with a widower met at a wedding (Michael McKean) who wants to take Marnie to the Holocaust Museum on a first date and, when, by accident, gets her in his car, wants to get physical before she exits.
Why this film didn’t open here on Mother’s Day, as it did in so many cities, is anyone’s guess. But, in truth, just as it’s too good a role for a Sarandon sitcom, it’s too good for a Mother’s Day film, too.
It’s more incontrovertible evidence: beautiful actresses on the senior tour are finally being provided for very well in American movies.
3.5 (Out of four)
Title: “The Meddler”
Starring: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Michael McKean
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Running time: 100 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for pot smoking.
The Lowdown: Recent widow from New Jersey joins her daughter in L.A.