“The Meddler” is a comedy for anybody who’s ever felt glued to her bed, racked with anxiety, staring up at a ceiling fan that moves constantly but goes nowhere. This is the movie’s opening shot, and it’s an apt metaphor for the protagonist who’s fixated on the soundless spinning blades.
Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon), widowed for nearly two years, has still not accepted the passing of her husband. Feeling rudderless, she’s just moved from New York to Los Angeles. She’s trying to convince herself that her new environs are paradise—as she often repeats, “It’s like Main Street in Disneyland”—when it’s obvious that she moved to Hollywood to be near (and cling to) her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), who works in the television industry. When Lori, in a fit of understandable frustration, aims to establish boundaries, Marnie is understandably hurt, and begins to meddle in the lives of others—generously and to the recipients’ benefis—to give her own existence meaning.
“The Meddler” is a sweet, misty-eyed and perceptive movie, but it’s often more than that. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria imbues her film with the raw ingredients of lived experience. By displaying empathy for everyone, even in their most misguided moments, she avoids the cardboard characterizations and stock antagonists endemic to commercial rom-coms. Everybody is imperfect and flailing around for happiness, from Lori, who is hopelessly infatuated with her movie-star ex, to both of Marnie’s suitors: a chicken-raising retired cop (J.K. Simmons excelling as you’ve never seen him before) trying to mend a broken relationshipwith his daughter, and an awkward single dad (Michael McKean) fumbling his way to a disastrous come-on. To its great credit, “The Meddler” can be merciless and cringe-worthy, and the decision to write from life pays off in an immensely, uncomfortably relatable film for anyone (like, it must be said, yours truly) whose parent has lost a spouse and doesn’t know how to grieve, cope, move on, or some combination of these three inevitabilities.
Movie studios are quietly opening their wallets to films about older women seeking self-actualization, and they’re gifting fine actresses with their best roles in years: See Lily Tomlin in “Grandma,” Sally Field in “Hello, My Name is Doris,” and now Sarandon, in a performance of nuance, humor and poignancy. But “The Meddler” remains a human story of increasing rarity in our multiplexes. Only in its desire to tie up everything in a neat bow does “The Meddler” succumb to convention. Luckily, it doesn’t diminish the loveliness and discomfort of everything that came before it.
“The Meddler” opens today, May 13, at theaters including Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, Muvico Parisian 20 in West Palm Beach and the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale.