(A version of this review first appeared in The New Fillmore)
The complicated bond between mother and child has never had a better, a funnier, or a more heartwarming cinematic incarnation. Unconditional love and setting boundaries drive the comedy of THE MEDDLER. Written and directed by Loren Scafaria from her own experiences with an adoring mother, the film never takes the obvious route following the adventures of Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) and the people she sweeps into her orbit as she makes a new life for herself in the California sun.
Marnie is a giver. She finds joy in bringing happiness to others with the money left her by her beloved husband, and with the time she has on her hands now that she’s moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey to be near her television-writer daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne,). Hence, paying for a dream wedding for one of Lori’s friends (Cecily Strong), and playing chauffeur for that the young man (Jerrord Carmichael) at the Genius Bar who has helped her with her iPhone so that he can get to his night classes. For their part, they are more than grateful to her, they are genuinely charmed by someone who so visibly relishes life.
Lori is less than charmed. With a deadline looming, and not yet recovered from a painful breakup with the love of her life (Jason Ritter), Lori finds Marnie’s constant voice mails, texts, and pop-ins with salt bagels the stuff of nightmares. For Marnie, who has devoted her life to her family, not being able to help the one person who matters most to her is a blow, but one that she will use to reinvent herself.
Making Marnie a woman who looks forward, not backward is refreshing. As is the choice to make her tech savvy (or at least open to learning) and a fan of Beyoncé. There are no cheap jokes here exploiting popular culture’s stereotypes about women of a certain age, instead Scafaria has gifted us with a vibrant woman with a tender heart putting herself out there to leave things better than she found them. If part of it is filling the emotional hole her daughter refuses to fill, it’s certainly not the whole story. When she crosses paths with a laid-back ex-cop (J.K. Simmons) who takes a shine to her spirit and good looks, That development defies the usual conventions, too, as does her reaction to Michael McKeon as a would-be suitor who can’t catch a break.
THE MEDDLER is the fulfillment of a good-natured threat Scafaria made when her mother moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey the way Marnie did in the film, and proceeded to get involved in the lives of Scafaria’s friends. The way art imitates life extends to the location for Lori’s house, which is Scafaria’s own former home. Perhaps that explains the tenderness found throughout the film, and the emotional truth, particularly in a scene where Marnie visits her in-laws back in New Jersey. As she is telling a story about her late husband to his brothers and their wives as they all sit around the family table, Scafaria places the camera behind the one empty chair, framing Sarandon with the absence of her late husband that looms over all of them. The poignancy of that moment is a precis on the life Marnie had, and underscores her resilience in moving forward with such determination. As does a scene where she discovers even more of life’s possibilities when she consumes a fried egg gifted to Marnie by that ex-cop with the sweet smile and bevy of hens residing at his canyon home.
Sarandon is incandescent. The Oscar™-winner has the charisma to make Marnie effortlessly irresistible, and catching the warmth of a woman who can’t help but get involved, whether she should or not. Her best moments, though, are the ones with Byrne, who wears her ragged emotions on her sleeve. Even when Lori yells at her mother for stepping over a boundary, you can see the hurt little girl who still needs her mother’s hug, and with Sarandon, you see the mother who wants mothing more than to give one, but is willing to give the younger woman space. And a salt bagel.