So few words have never established a character better than those from the well-intentioned if not overbearing protagonist of writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s THE MEDDLER. Susan Sarandon’s “sMother” begins her conversation with the audience as if we’ve known her for years. Anyone who’s ever had a personality like this in their lives, or who is missing a nurturer like her, will certainly connect to this charming, compassionate and loveable film.
Widower Marnie Minervini (Sarandon) is a New Jersey native living in Los Angeles – more specifically, as she tells us, in the same apartment complex where they shot THE HILLS. She typically spends her days shopping at The Grove, listening to the Beyonce ballad “I Was Here,” and harassing her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne) via voicemail messages. Her loneliness causes her to be overly friendly with strangers like Apple Store worker Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael), giving him unsolicited advice about his future, and overly generous with her daughter’s friends like Jillian (Cecily Strong), gifting her with funds to throw a dream wedding. But when Lori announces she’s temporarily moving to New York for her career and to get away from her A-list movie star ex-boyfriend (Jason Ritter), it’s clear Marnie’s life will be impacted.
What’s so pleasantly refreshing about the narrative is that Marnie’s introspective journey isn’t filled with whiplash-inducing character arcs and predictable plot twists. Her metamorphosis is gentle, valuing subtlety over contrivance. Figuring out where to bury her deceased husband, where she fits in her daughter’s busy life, and where she fits in the world at this stage: these are small but epic decisions Marnie makes on her road to finding happiness and security. It’s also notable that she’s never repressive in the mean-spirited sense of the word (unlike MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2’s oppressive family members). She’s genuinely supportive, and her help springs from a good place – it’s just that she doesn’t know boundaries. Though I did have a few problems with her predilection for using money as a way to solve problems, and that this never leads to any earth-shattering revelations on her part, I still appreciated this unaddressed quirk in her psyche. Plus, it’s a genuine feat that all the characters are three-dimensional beings rather than caricatures. Their motives and necessities to be in scenes are clear and concise; we fully grasp Lori’s frustrations, Marnie’s yearning to help people in need, and the wants of those people she’s “helping.”
After years of playing extremes – either the nice guy (JUNO, MEN WOMEN & CHILDREN) or the bad guy (WHIPLASH, OZ) – it’s a joy to see J.K. Simmons, as Marnie’s “sensitive heartthrob” suitor, riding a bad-ass Harley Davidson and taking care of chickens. He’s a strong dude with a soft heart. Scafaria does a nice job with something we don’t typically see – representing the “female gaze” on a older actor. After Marnie overhears Randy singing and playing the guitar, his chambray shirt ever-so-slightly inches open as he leans against his front door frame. There’s also a scene earlier where Marnie’s ravishing of an egg in toast garners an orgasmic-like reaction, which isn’t nearly as perverse or gratuitous as I’ve made it sound. It seems like it’s been a while since audiences were last treated to a romance that wasn’t about youths falling in love. “Anyways,” the point is, the ideals this film posits have a timeless, almost throwback vibe to them.
With a nickname similar to a superhero, she needs to be recruited by the DC cinematic universe. She could get all up in their business, pointing out their problems and gently suggesting what they should be doing. For now though, her origin story begins in this gem of an indie movie. Scafaria has crafted a humorous and heartfelt coming-of-a-certain-age story with THE MEDDLER – one that everyone should see.
4.5 out of 5
THE MEDDLER opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 22.