Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: "The Meddler"

"The Meddler" is a movie without a lot of big moves, but it spins joyfully in its own little circle.

Susan Sarandon plays Marnie, a Jersey widow who moves out to Los Angeles so she can smother her daughter with kindness. The daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), pushes her away at every turn, so Marnie continually seeks out other venues in which to insert herself in other people's lives.

That's pretty much the entire story. It may not sound like enough for an entire movie, but writer/director Lorene Scafaria ("Seeking a Friend for the End of the World") and Sarandon give us a wonderful character study with a lot of heart and a little wisdom, too.

This is one of those deals where you just enjoy spending time with these characters, and that's enough.

Sarandon tries on an agreeable Brooklyn honk (though it has a tendency to fade a bit from time to time) as she narrates Marnie's story, told largely through a series of long -- and unreturned -- voice messages she leaves for Lori. It's mostly rote checking-in kinda stuff, here's what I'm up to, hope things are going well with you, etc.

But Marnie unwittingly slips in constant little digs that tear at Lori's fragile psyche. She's a successful writer who's got a new TV show lined up, but recently broke up with her boyfriend (Jason Ritter) who's also a big action movie star. She's getting on in years, cherishes her independence but also quietly pines for children, and Marnie is there to pick-pick-pick at all her insecurities.

A mother's love is boundless -- which is another way of saying it's ceaseless.

Marnie is an interesting gal. She's not exactly dim, but she's not very self-reflective and instinctively crosses over borders. Years of being told she's doing so by Lori only enables her to acknowledge that she's crosses boundaries while she's doing it.

Her husband, Joe, left her a big pile of money so she doesn't have to work. There are a lot of hours in the day, and Marnie tries a bunch of things to fill them up. She starts volunteering at the hospital (without actually signing up to do so), walks into a movie set and becomes a regular extra, befriends the young Genius at the Apple store (Jerrod Carmichael) and soon is driving him around to the college classes she encouraged him to take.

That doesn't begin to mention how she inserts herself into Lori's circle of girlfriends -- Lucy Punch, Cecily Strong, Sarah Baker, Casey Wilson -- showing up at a baby shower as a +1, without the 1. Soon she's planning an extravagant post-wedding party for one of them costing tens of thousands of dollars, out of her own pocket. Marnie basks in this attention, even if it is a faux substitute for the mother/daughter relationship she craves.

Heck, Marnie even signs up for sessions with Lori's therapist (Amy Landecker) just so she can talk about her daughter, since the real thing doesn't want to.

The funny thing is, for all her brazen feats of meddling, Marnie can be quite shy and retiring when others pull the same move on her. She's clearly intimidated by her late husband's family back East, a gregarious clan of Italians. And when a nicely creased older cop shows her some romantic attention, she demurs at first.

Zipper -- his real name, btw -- is played by J.K. Simmons, who just oozes rustic charm and magnetism. He's a lonely divorced guy who lives in the rural outskirts of L.A., playing Dolly Parton music for his chickens and lamenting his distant relations with his daughters. Marnie's drawn to him, but she's so used to being the interloper, she's a bit confused when someone intrudes into her sphere.

I really enjoyed this movie. It doesn't feel like it's trying to push any big revelations on you or impress you with an intricate storyline. It's just people, bumping into each other and interacting. Sometimes their flaws rub each other the wrong way, and sometimes a weakness is beheld as a strength by others.

Mostly "The Meddler" is a showcase for Susan Sarandon, who's usually known for playing such strong women. Marnie is too, but in a different way. Her yearning never really goes away, but starts out as desperation and turns into something more positive. It's like watching someone drowning, and then their frantic flailing becomes a calm, sustaining stroke.

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