‘The Meddler’ gives that special cheesy genre about overbearing mothers a good name. You know the type – those movies where a well-meaning but impossibly pushy mother gradually learns to give her children control of their lives, while also learning that she can have a rich and full life outside of them. Generally these are cornball affairs, but Lorene Scafaria (‘Seeking a Friend for the End of the World‘) has somehow managed to join the ranks of folks like Albert Brooks and deliver one of the rare entries in this endless genre that actually works.
The writer/director loves her characters enough that she’s willing to give them full inner lives that transcend the formula. It also doesn’t hurt that she has a knack for staging the types of humiliating scenes that make you want to shield your eyes and leave the room.
Susan Sarandon gives one of her finest performances in years as Marnie, the doting mother in question. She’s recently moved from New York to Los Angeles after the death of her husband to be closer to her deeply neurotic screenwriting daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). She’s the type of mom who likes to call four or five times a day, if only to finish a voice mail that was cut off last time. She’s always showing up at Lori’s house with a fresh bag of bagels and a new list of unsolicited advice. It goes over about as well as you’d imagine, especially since Byrne plays one of those characters perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Eventually, Lori flies back to the Big Apple to film a TV pilot and Marnie is left on her own with no one to obsess over. She soon finds some surrogate parenting duties, like helping a local Apple Store employee (Jerrod Carmichael) attend night school and paying obscene sums of money to give one of Lori’s friends whom she barely knows (Cecily Strong) a dream wedding. There are also a few fleeting advances from men (specifically a brilliantly awkward Michael McKean and a charming romantic edition of J.K. Simmons). Marnie’s difficulties even accepting their flirtation speaks to the issues surrounding her husband’s death that she’s yet to come to terms with. So…uh oh…I smell an emotional redemption!
Part of the reason why ‘The Meddler’ works so well is that Scarfaria opts to follow the mother’s perspective rather than the daughter’s. This allows her to immediately feel like a full person, rather than a series of cheesy parenting jokes from an open mic night. Sarandon’s character is annoying, yet heartbreakingly sincere in a way that makes her impossible to hate. She may say things with an absolutely insane lake of self-awareness, but her heart is always at least within the region of the right place. Sarandon clearly relishes the role, leaning into its cringe comedy potential with gusto while also keeping a certain air of broken tragedy slightly beneath the surface. Rose Byrne makes for an ideal sparring partner as a brilliant yet completely neurotic wreck seemingly incapable of moving through one day without making her life worse. Together, they form a rich sense of subtle co-dependency. Even if Marnie pushes about 250% too hard, it’s clear that Lori desperately needs the constant sounding board and support despite rarely showing any thanks.
The filmmaker surrounds her leads with a collection of talented actors in charming performances. J.K. Simmons channels a touch of Sam Elliot as a good ol’ boy with a heart of gold. Cecily Strong offers up an absolutely hilarious, scene-stealing performance without pushing too hard for laughs to break the reality of the movie. Even Michael McKean is so damn funny and real in a small role that you’ll wish the guy could pop up in every movie. Above all else, Scafaria loves her characters and takes great care to bring them to life with her actors. The performances are all excellent and it’s easy to get lost in scenes simply observing these people conversing.
Unfortunately, that proves to be the filmmaker’s greatest weakness as well as strength in a weird way. She creates too many interesting worlds and plotlines to properly wrap most of them up, and eventually her script settles into fairly predictable feel-good formulas because the writer/director loves these people too much to provide anything but happy endings. Sadly, the way things work out a little too smoothly bursts the film’s well-earned bubble of realism in the home stretch. It’s disappointing to watch the eccentric and real comedy turn into something that you’ve seen so many times before.
Given the target audience for this sort of thing, a little predictability and happiness should work out just fine for most viewers. It’s still a delightful little movie defined by excellent performances. That’ll do just fine. Plus, ‘The Meddler’ is the perfect indie to hit screens in time for Mother’s Day, more than making up for the horrible movie that’s actually named after the holiday competing for attention on neighboring screens.