The Meddler (2015) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for brief drug content
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Jerrod Carmichael, Cecily Strong, Michael McKean, Lucy Punch, John Ritter, Casey Wilson
Small role: Robert Picardo, Tony Amendola, Harry Hamlin, Laura San Giacomo, Randall Park
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Screenplay: Lorene Scafaria
Review published June 2, 2016
Widowed Marnie Minervini (Sarandon, Tammy) lives in the Los Angeles area, a New Jersey transplant, to be near her daughter Lori (Byrne, X-Men Apocalypse), who has moved there to pursue her career as a screenwriter. That's much to Lori's chagrin, as Marnie, without her husband or any friends in the area, is lonely and doting, calling and texting her daughter constantly, to the point where most of her attempts have started to go ignored, resulting in lengthy voicemail messages about nothing much in particular. As a result, Marnie has gone to other means to try to find someone to talk to, perhaps even to supplant her grief, babysitting for her daughter's friends (even doing wedding planning, using the sizable amount of cash left by her husband's life insurance), the Apple genius (Carmichael, Neighbors 2) who helps her with her phone questions, a mute and bed-ridden elderly woman she runs into in the hospital, and Zipper (Simmons, Zootopia) a retired local cop who raises chickens up in Topanga that could be a love interest, if Marnie could ever convince herself that her late husband could ever be replaced in her heart.
The Meddler is written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, who received some looks for her Seeking a Friend for the End of the World four years prior. Scafaria's inspiration for her story comes from the relationship with her real-life mother, finding both the aggravation as well as the sympathy for the mother figure in her film, as well as drawing out the importance of a mother's unconditional love in one's life that often gets taken for granted. That she does this while always finding the humor in the situation, even through emotionally squishy moments, it what makes it a delight for those who enjoy good indie dramedies.
The look at the grieving process and how it affects Marnie is also astute. Marnie spends so much time trying to not have to think about her loneliness and grief that she has no idea just how long it has been since her husband has been gone. One person mentions the anniversary of his death is coming up and Marnie thinks it must be the first; it has been two years. Although growing up in Brooklyn, followed by New Jersey, Marnie seems to enjoy California living. She claims it's like an amusement park, which is what she feels she needs -- a world of perpetual distractions and folks she doesn't know, unlike New Jersey, which reminds her so much of her husband and their lives together. She knows her husband is dead, but doesn't want to ever make it official, continuing to keep his ashes without any plans to bury him anywhere; she hasn't even picked out a headstone for his grave so that he can be visited by his loved ones. Anytime a memory creeps in, she 's ready to find something else to keep her from such thoughts.
Not all of the story threads are successful. Lori's struggles to get over her ex-boyfriend, Jacob (Ritter, The East), showcase a relationship that is never quite defined well, and seems to be somewhat different in dynamic every time it is introduced. Some of the situations are contrived for laughs, one involving the question of a pregnancy and whether a test can be trusted seems absurd, while another involves circumstances that result in Marnie scarfing down a bag of marijuana and the resultant dazed-and-confused antics such a rash act would produce. While situations may occasionally seem forced, Scafaria keeps the sitcom reactions to them always grounded, which can be done with a great lead and strong supporting performers who are able to fill out their characters with depth.
While they exist in other circles and slightly different comedies in terms of tone, it could be funny to see extroverted Marnie from The Meddler pair up with introverted Doris from Hello My Name is Doris as far as older women who are determined to keep their relevancy in a time after the death of someone they've come to rely on for most of their lives. Both Sarandon and Sally Field in their respective roles show why they've been considered top-notch actresses for decades, effectively showing vulnerability and eliciting a great deal of empathy for their often corrosive behavior. Perhaps their worst faults are that they need someone, anyone, to love without conditions, which will cause one to wonder if we really should see such behavior as any kind of fault at all in his uncaring, self-centered world.
Despite its somewhat misleading title more apropos for a broader, more stereotypical kind of comedy, The Meddler remains a pleasant enough comedy throughout, mostly because the characters are enjoyable and the situations relatable. The Meddler succeeds as a picture of the constricting effects of unresolved grief because Scafaria's intentions are pure and her approach is compassionate. There are no bad guys in the movie, and Marnie remains someone to empathize with, even when her actions lead to more harm than good to those around her. She truly does well, as the saying goes. It reiterates (and likely inspired) that which supporting actor J.K. Simmons would encourage his audience to call their moms and dads in his memorable Oscar acceptance speech: "Tell them you love them and thank them and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you."
©2016 Vince Leo