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the-meddler

D: Lorene Scafaria / 103m

Cast: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Jerrod Carmichael, Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch, Michael McKean, Jason Ritter, Jo Jordan

Marnie Minervini (Sarandon) is recently widowed. She has a daughter, Lori (Byrne), who lives and works in Los Angeles in the TV industry. At a loss as to what to do with her time, and despite being financially comfortable thanks to her late husband Joe’s foresight, Marnie chooses to focus her attention on Lori. But Marnie has no idea that her attentions are overbearing, and she ignores Lori’s protests that she’s trying too hard to involve herself in her daughter’s life. When Lori gets an plus-one invitation to a friend’s baby shower, Marnie invites herself along. Lori doesn’t show but Marnie is a hit with her daughter’s friends, and soon she’s spending more and more time with them, particularly Jillian (Strong), who reveals her wish to be married but who can’t afford it.

Marnie persuades Jillian to let her pay for the wedding, and soon she and Jillian’s friends (and Lori’s) are planning all the details, including the bridal outfit. Meanwhile, Lori announces that she’s going to New York for a while. The pilot she’s working on is being filmed there, and it makes sense for her to be there if any problems arise. Marnie throws herself into helping others, from the Genius at an Apple store, Freddy (Carmichael), to an elderly lady (Jordan) at the hospital where she volunteers. She even meets a retired policeman called Zipper (Simmons) when she inadvertently wanders into the background of a movie that’s being shot, and is mistaken for an extra.

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A trip to New York to visit Lori and Joe’s family goes awry, and Marnie returns to Los Angeles chastened and beginning to realise just how much her grief has been channelled into helping others at the expense of herself. She spends more time with Zipper, and comes to Lori’s aid when she has an emergency. Jillian’s wedding goes off without a hitch, and Marnie is given a special mention for her help in organising it all. But Marnie still has to make a decision about whether or not she wants to continue as she is – constantly occupied yet unhappy – or begin a new stage in her life, one that will see her still helping others but not out of personal necessity.

While it’s an apt description of Marnie’s character (for the most part), The Meddler is only so apt when it applies to Marnie’s relationship with her daughter. Away from this, it’s not quite so appropriate, as Marnie’s actions are more altruistic than interfering. This leads to a curious fracturing of the narrative, as the scenes where Marnie uses her financial good fortune, and in the case of the old lady in the hospital her compassion, carry a less distinctive dramatic weight than in those where she spars with Lori for her daughter’s attention. It’s hard to determine if writer/director Scafaria, here following up her feature debut Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), intended it this way, or if it was something that was decided on in post-production.

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What emerges is a movie that is able to examine an aging woman’s experience of grief and the twofold way in which she assimilates and deals with it. On the one hand, her relationship with Lori suffers because Marnie isn’t able to tell her daughter just how much she’s still hurting from the loss of the man who was so important to both of them. Instead she tries to protect and control Lori’s life to the extent that she’ll be kept perfectly safe – and Marnie won’t need to worry about losing her as well. That her actions are having precisely that very effect is the irony that compounds the situation, and stops things from being resolved between them. Scafaria makes a clever decision in their early scenes by playing up the humour inherent in the idea of an overbearing mother (at one point Lori suggests her mother take up a hobby; Marnie’s reply? “Maybe you could be my hobby!”). But the humour is gradually eroded and left behind in favour of exchanges that highlight the pain both women are suffering, and the additional pain their discord is causing each other.

Scafaria has created an emotionally complex, unfailingly brave character in Marnie Minervini, and she’s been blessed with the involvement of Sarandon in the role. The actress inhabits the part so completely, and with such ease, that it becomes a quiet masterclass in screen acting. Sarandon’s performance is so subtle, and so shaded, that often it seems she isn’t doing anything at all. And yet, every expression, every gaze, and every physical movement is in service to the character’s emotions, and her struggle to make sense of her continuing grief. To some degree we’re used to Sarandon giving impressive performances, but here she excels in a role that isn’t flashy, isn’t contrived, and isn’t weighted down by unnecessary layers. Sarandon doesn’t even attempt to make Marnie sympathetic beyond the fact of her being a widow; any sympathy Marnie receives from the viewer is earned through Sarandon’s careful attention to the character and the lessons she learns along the way.

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If there’s one criticism that could be levelled at the movie, it’s that Sarandon’s performance is so good that it eclipses those of the rest of the cast. By comparison, Byrne and Simmons et al fall just that little bit short of impressing as much. It’s not their fault, nor is it Scafaria’s – Sarandon is just that good – but it does make the movie feel a little uneven, as if the secondary characters, while important to the overall story, lack the necessary colour to make them stand out. In any other movie it probably wouldn’t be a problem, but here it detracts from the effectiveness of the various relationships.

Elsewhere there’s still much to admire, from the storyline involving the old lady in the hospital who keeps using a hand to make circles in the air, and which is given a poignant resolution; to the brief scene with Joe’s relatives where a very important clue as to the depth of Marnie’s grief is revealed; and Zipper’s owning chickens, which leads to the line, “Turns out, for the optimal combination of happiness and productivity… All roads lead to Dolly [Parton].” These are all minor moments in the overall fabric of the movie, but their understated nature is perfectly in tune with the gentle, good-natured approach Scafaria brings to the material. It’s a simple story, told simply and well, and at no point is the viewer left on the outside looking in. The humour is there, the drama is there, and the pathos is there, and it’s all impeccably put together by its writer/director in conjunction with its editor, Kayla Emter.

Rating: 8/10 – movies like The Meddler come along maybe once or twice a year, and often go overlooked, which is a shame, as Scafaria’s heartfelt tale of unaddressed grief is moving, life-affirming and overwhelmingly positive in its outlook; Sarandon is magnificent, Scafaria directs her own script with skill and clarity, and the movie offers a slew of rewards for anyone lucky enough to see it.

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