In her new film "The Meddler," writer-director Lorene Scafaria encapsulates the essence of her lead character and the tone of the film within its opening moments.
In her apartment, Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) stares up at the ceiling in seeming despair. After a long pause, a chipper narration kicks in. "Anyway ... " Marnie begins, sitting up in bed to face another day with her whirling-dervish optimism.
It's not as easy as Marnie makes it look, for although she's pleased as punch to be living by the Grove and hatching plans to volunteer at a hospital, Marnie is also struggling with grief over the loss of her husband.
The lioness' share of Marnie's love has shifted to her daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), in a manner that suggests the film's title. Marnie crosses every boundary with Lori. Unannounced, the mother lets herself into Lori's apartment and sets to offering tons of unsolicited advice, such as "I think we should get you a hobby" or, worse, telling her how to date and who to sleep with. She even advises Lori's therapist on how to treat her.
One of the key reasons that "The Meddler" works as a delightfully humane comedy is that it doesn't insist upon the meddling as a "premise" but as an important part of the film's psychological reality. While never really infringing on the film's essential comedic lightness, Scafaria keeps the tone anxious. It also helps that Scafaria's starting point wasn't a "high concept" but her own life, with Marnie's well-rounded personality based on the writer's own mother and the character of Lori, a screenwriter, based on Scafaria herself.
The little things make a difference. This isn't "Ricki and the Flash" (thankfully), so while there's a pot-smoking scene, it's funny because it's true, not a parody of reality. Whether it's a commitment to salt bagels or a "why not?" attitude to befriending an Apple Store "Genius" (Jerrod Carmichael), Marnie doesn't just stay this side of credible; she's a dead ringer for someone you have known: that "meddler"/guardian angel who's extravagantly giving of time and resources (Marnie recklessly spends her late husband's money) but who is a little too needy (she can't be alone).
And then there's the big thing that makes a difference: a movie star. Susan Sarandon has of late been relegated mostly to supporting roles, so it's a distinct pleasure to see her "taking" the screen again in a big way. With no hint of condescension but evident love, Sarandon nails Marnie's level of sophistication (a few notches lower than the actress' own), her joie de vivre (at, say, stumbling into movie extra work), and her reticence when it comes to emotional risk (closure on her husband's death).
That last one also includes sweet romance with a kind divorcee (J.K. Simmons, amusingly doing Sam Elliott), a better choice than the eager suitor that leaves her running away serpentine. In short, "The Meddler" is the Mother's Day comedy to put a smile on your face and keep it there, even if your eyes get a little watery.
Rated PG-13 for brief drug content. One hour, 40 minutes.