by Elizabeth Stoddard
The latest from writer/director Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) is a joyous comedy about a woman in mourning. In The Meddler, widow Marnie (Susan Sarandon) tries to stay busy in her new locale of Los Angeles — the Grove, specifically — so she can’t dwell on the loss of her husband. She repeatedly calls or texts her filmmaker daughter Lori (Rose Byrne) and drops by unannounced.
Marnie strikes up friendships with Lori’s acquaintances, gifting an iPad at a baby shower for one (Lucy Punch) and financing the wedding celebration for another (Cecily Strong, SNL). She volunteers to drive her favorite Apple Store employee (Jerrod Carmichael, The Carmichael Show) to night classes, cares for a random hospital patient, and accidentally walks on to a movie set — where she meets retired cop, Zipper (J.K. Simmons). Marnie cares for others, in a disruptive sort of way.
Scafaria based the story on her own mother’s situation, with a large amount of fictionalization thrown in. Marnie wants to be helpful; with Sarandon’s layered performance and the director’s obvious affection for her subject, the character never comes off as a dingbat or flighty. The audience can laugh at the situations Marnie gets herself into — or talks herself into, or volunteers herself into — but the character is given much depth. We see that it is difficult for her to talk to men her age, especially if flirting is involved. She still carries her late husband’s license around.
Pervasive through The Meddler, lightened though it may be by Marnie’s foibles and unwelcome advice, is her feeling of being left behind. The camera dwells on an empty chair at a family dinner, and Marnie is reticent to decide on the text for a tombstone while other family members have moved on to other stages of grief. She sings along to Beyonce’s “I Was Here” every time she’s in the car, as a reminder to herself and an exhibit to the viewer that she wants to make a mark.
Sarandon as Marnie is most exquisite in her moments of silence, as her facial gestures speak to her sadness, her loneliness, or a happy discovery. Byrne and Sarandon as mother and daughter share a believable rapport in their depiction of a mother’s love that is slightly chafing. Scafaria’s script places one of the largest laughs in the film in the same scene as one of the most emotional moments between the two actresses, and it just works. Indeed, everything works in The Meddler; the glee of Marnie’s adventure in Los Angeles is balanced by her journey through her grief. The film serves as a showcase for Sarandon’s talent and a display of a director’s love for her mother.
The Meddler opens in Austin on Friday, May 13 at Regal Arbor.