The Meddler is the undiscovered gem of the summer movie season, in which Susan Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini, a New York export living in Los Angeles, recently widowed, with too much time on her hands and more money than she knows what to do with. She’s come to L.A. to be near her daughter, Lori, a TV writer who’s played by Rose Byrne. But Lori feels stifled by Marnie’s nagging. The film opens with what seems like an introductory voiceover, with Marnie talking all about her new life in Los Angeles, which she describes as “like living on Main Street in DisneyLand.” Then we realize that Marnie is actually leaving her daughter the world’s longest voicemail. Marnie is the Queen of Nagging, and Lori, who’s just suffered a painful breakup, wants nothing more than to be left alone in her bed to cry.
At first, The Meddler seems like a cartoonish bit of fluff, a one-note kind of movie about an aging woman who’s become obsolete now that her family no longer needs her. (And the title is really unfortunate: it sounds like the name of a bad Batman villain.) But The Meddler is so much more than fluff. The film quickly becomes a thoughtful, moving, and funny portrait of a woman who must reinvent herself. Like the recently divorced Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman, or, like Blythe Danner’s character in last year’s delightful I’ll See You in My Dreams, The Meddler is a celebratory poem to women who’ve been suddenly discarded by the youth-centric, male-centric culture that has aged them out of importance. But this is not an act of cinematic pity for dowdy, aloof older women. It’s a challenge to reconsider the possibilities in life.
Marnie is quite pathetic in the first third of the movie as she clings to Lori for some semblance of a social life, and more importantly, a source of need. But then Marnie starts getting out. Granted, the budding social life she creates for herself doesn’t feel totally healthy. She offers to fund a wedding reception for one of Lori’s girlfriends, then scouts out the location, the decorations, and the catering herself. She strikes up a friendship with a young man at the Apple store, convinces him to go to night school, and winds up driving him to his classes three times a week. She volunteers at the hospital, spending time with an elderly woman who appears to have suffered a stroke. She forces herself to be busy. But Marnie’s busyness seems like a cover-up. We sense early on that she’s never really gotten over the death of her husband Joe. But she can’t talk about her grief, and she can’t bring herself to date. (When two men get close to her, Marnie freezes up, then panics, and in one particularly funny and surprising moment, clocks a likable would-be suitor (played by Michael McKean) right in the crotch and runs away.)
When Marnie barges in on Lori’s therapist, fishing for info about her daughter, Marnie's obviously nosy questions reveal more and more about her own dependent personality. The therapist wonders: Why do you spend all this money on people you barely know? What is Marnie getting out of these acts of charity? But as crazy as Marnie’s actions seem to us—she’s like a post-ghost, Jewish Ebenezer Scrooge—there’s something completely endearing about Marnie’s new project of self-sacrifice. “I think Joe would want me to do some good with all this money,” she tells the therapist. And sure, Marnie’s motivation for acting like a menopausal Robin Hood may be wrapped up in all kinds of unhealthy emotional hangups, but the more she gives, the more those hangups diffuse.
Susan Sarandon has always had a terrific command of the screen. She’s at her best playing tough women, as in Thelma and Louise or Dead Man Walking, but she has a soft side too, and The Meddler manages to bring out both of these elements in Sarandon’s performance. Sarandon can play dotty, but she gives Marnie an undercurrent of intelligence that becomes increasingly stronger with time, as though Marnie is slowly finding herself again, and with this new discovery comes a revitalization of her senses. (And no one rocks a red dress like Sarandon does in the wedding scene.)
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria is clearly fascinated, head-over-heels even, with the character of Marnie, which is why Scafaria doesn’t allow her to be pathetic for long. The film suggests that mothers become “meddlers” because they’re so used to being needed, that when their kids grow up, they don’t know what to do with themselves, and float around in a fog. Marnie has been floating for too long, and become totally addle-brained. At times I was worried the movie would diagnose her with early stages of Dementia. (In one scene, she crashes into another car because she’s distracted by a sign.) Thankfully, Scafaria doesn’t resort to cheap sentimental ploys.
The relationship between Marnie and her daughter Lori is equally as complex as Marnie herself. Lori is in some ways the typical adult whose mother drives her crazy. After practically screaming at her mother and slamming the door in Marnie’s face, Lori whispers meekly through the door, “I still need a ride to the airport tomorrow.” Marnie loves her daughter unconditionally, and it’s when she begins to create a fuller life for herself that their relationship regenerates into a friendship of two grown-ups.
Movies are often terrified of older women, and they’ve always loved to show them losing their grip on reality (Sunset Boulevard, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Fatal Attraction, etc.) The Meddler is about a woman finding her grip, and it showcases probably the best Sarandon performance in the last decade. That’s why we should celebrate movies like I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Meddler: they give rich, well-drawn characters to delightful actresses who’ve only gotten better with age. Marnie Minervini may be a little nuts, but she’s also funny, romantic, kind-hearted, and sexy. And everywhere she goes, she brings bagels.
With J.K. Simmons (in one of his most enjoyable performances as a retired cop who becomes a love interest for Marnie), Lucy Punch (as one of Lori’s very L.A. girlfriends), Jason Ritter, Casey Wilson, Jerrod Carmichael, and Cecily Strong.