For the first couple of minutes of Susan Sarandon’s performance as a “Noo Joisey” widow who “TAWKS LIKE DIS” in “The Meddler,” I was fidgeting in my seat, wondering if I’d be calling this one of the truly awful performances in Ms. Sarandon’s wonderful career.
Ah but then, in the same way Sarandon’s needy, busybody chatterbox Marnie turns out to be something much more complex and endearing and lovely and surprising, the performance itself took root and grew on me to the point where I didn’t want to say goodbye to Marnie.
“The Meddler” is a prime example of a Mom Movie, and as I’ve explained before, that’s not a jab or even a backhanded compliment, it’s sincere as the hug you’re going to give your ma on Mother’s Day. It’s the kind of the movie you can take your mom to see, whether your mom is 38 or 84, and it has enough crossover appeal to entertain certain (and by certain I mean male) moviegoers who are already rolling their eyes and thinking of excuses to avoid seeing a film about a feisty widow from New Jersey.
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria takes a sitcom of a premise and imbues it with depth, intelligence and numerous sweet, melancholy moments that feel just … right. We know people like the people in this movie, and sometimes they get on our nerves and sometimes they need to get over themselves — and most of the time we can’t imagine life without them.
Sarandon, looking an authentic and magnificently beautiful 70 (the actress turns that age later this year), plays an incessantly upbeat but lonely widow who moved from Jersey to Los Angeles shortly after her husband’s death a few years back. Marnie has an apartment near the Grove, which she considers a magical place, what with the retail shops and the movie theaters and the entertainment and the water fountain and the trolley cars and the Farmers Market.
At first when we hear Marnie’s voice-over extolling all the exciting aspects of her life in L.A., we think she’s providing narration — but it turns out Marnie is leaving long, long, LONG messages with her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), a TV writer who’s in a serious funk after a breakup with her hunky actor boyfriend Jacob (Jason Ritter).
Lori is single, living in a town and working in an industry where even a gorgeous 35-year-old is considered “older,” and though she clearly adores her mother, she’s right at that age and that place in her personal and professional life where she’s REALLY regretting giving her mother (who has all the time in the world) a key to her apartment. As Marnie prattles on and on about what Lori should do with her life and how she should try to win Jacob back, you know it’s just a matter of time before Lori explodes at her mother and they go their separate ways.
At least for a while.
When Lori zips out to New York to work on a pilot (based on her own life), Marnie wants to tag along — but Lori says Marnie has to stay behind and watch Lori’s dogs. Now with even more time on her hands, Marnie meddles her way into the lives of her daughters’ friends (she attends a baby shower as Lori’s “Plus One” even though Lori isn’t attending) and the 22-year-old at the Apple Genius Bar who helps Marnie out every other day. (Marnie is one of those older moms who have embraced the technology to the point where the grown children want to GIVE UP the technology just to avoid mom.)
Amy Landecker gives a nice spin as Lori’s therapist, who becomes Marnie’s therapist after Marnie shows up unannounced to discuss her daughter’s problems. J.K. Simmons is all baritone teddy bear as a divorced cop with a thing for Marnie, and this movie is not above giving that cop a Harley with an extra helmet, an acoustic guitar and a perfect little ranch where he raises chickens and gives them all names.
Although “The Meddler” is filmed in sunny California hues (with a detour to a more golden-brown New York) and features mostly likable characters and a bounty of laughs, Scafaria’s screenplay occasionally reminds us of Marnie’s sometimes-desperate attempts to win the affections of near strangers, and Lori’s infuriating insecurity (she’s SO much better than the jackass who dumped her), and the fact even the lovable J.K. Simmons character wasn’t a good father. There’s not a one-dimensional character in the bunch.
Taken as a whole, Sarandon’s performance is something to behold. Yes, she plays it up big with the accent and some broad strokes, but she also finds some quiet, low-key notes, as in the scene where she visits Lori on the set of the pilot and realizes the actors playing the parents in the TV show (they’re played by Harry Hamlin and Laura San Giacomo) are clearly based on Marnie and her late, beloved husband.
It’s one of my favorite movie moments of 2016.
Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by Lorene Scafaria. Running time: 100 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for brief drug content). Opens Friday at local theaters.