Review: The Meddler

Susan Sarandon shines again in this mostly light-hearted film about grief.

The Meddler made me wonder, what the hell happened to Susan Sarandon? There was was a time when she was considered one of our greatest actresses, possessing a quick wit and earthy sex appeal not usually seen in American movie stars. Between 1981 and 1995 she was nominated for five Oscars and won once—Best Actress for 1995’s Dead Man Walking. Since then, she has mostly been featured in a series of mediocre movies and TV shows.

The obvious and correct answer, of course, is she got older and, with few exceptions (La Meryl, Dame Helen, Julianne Moore), Hollywood simply refuses to let its female stars age. But considering how beautiful, sexy, and vital she still is at 69 (!), I can’t help but to feel that she botched her career on some level, or at least was the victim of some lousy luck.

Anyway, if you’d forgotten what a national treasure Sarandon is (as an actress! as an actress!—we can discuss her politics in some other blog), The Meddler will certainly remind you. It’s a pretty good film with a great—funny, empathic, and yes, sexy—performance by its leading lady.

Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini, a recently widowed woman who moves from New York to L.A. to be closer to her TV-writer daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), who has just gone through a bad breakup. Marnie’s late husband Joe has left her a lot of money, so she has an enormous amount of disposable income and free time on her hands. The film starts with Marnie leaving a gas-baggy voicemail message on Lori’s phone in her somewhat thick Brooklyn accent and this is a sign of things to come. There are few moments in the film when Marnie isn’t talking—about her life, about other people’s lives, and, mostly, about Lori’s life. It becomes clear that Marnie talks and talks so she doesn’t have to sit with her own grief.

The Meddler, which was written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend For the End of the World), has been promoted as a mother/daughter story, but that’s not quite accurate. (All the shame—it means less of the gifted Byrne.) It’s much more a portrait of Marnie and her perpetual motion version of grieving. At some point, Lori—who loves her mother, but understandably finds her exhausting—heads to New York to film a pilot and Marnie is left to her own devices. Quickly, she becomes involved with Lori’s friends, even offering to pay for one friend’s wedding ceremony (Marnie blinks for a moment when she discovers the friend, played by Cecily Strong, is a lesbian, then steamrolls ahead). She becomes confidante and make-shift chauffeur to a young black man (Jerrod Carmichael) who works at the Apple Genius store. She volunteers at the local hospital, although it’s never clear if she’s a formal volunteer, or just hanging around with her perfect captive audience—a sick old woman who is mute. She even begins a tentative romance with a kindly retired police officer (J.K. Simmons).

Marnie is also seeing a therapist, played by Amy Landecker from Transparent, who poses questions that remind me of those book club discussion topics in the back pages of some novels: Is Marnie giving away all her money because she feels guilty that her husband left her so much? Or is she trying to buy friendships?

I actually don’t think either of those questions is quite right: Marnie can’t deal with anyone’s sadness, not just her own. Spending money to make people happy allows her to create her own conflict-free version of the world.

There are some serious and interesting themes here, but more often then not, Scafaria goes for the sitcom-style soft landing. There’s a not-so-funny bit where Marnie gets stoned, a non-starter involving Lori’s rebound beau, even a reunion with Joe’s boisterous family to discuss his headstone—something that Marnie was dreading because, again, she doesn’t like to feel sad—all of which feel undercooked. And while it’s nice—and downright curative, after Whiplash— to see J.K. Simmons playing such a mensch, he’s almost ridiculously idealized.

In some ways, The Meddler parallels Marnie herself—always wanting to keep it light; never wanting to deal with things that are too sad and and complicated and messy. Still, it’s funny and warm and gives us Sarandon’s great performance. As Marnie herself might say, “What? That’s not enough?”