It’s hard not to like movies by Lorene Scafaria because she puts so much of herself into them. “Nick& Norah’s Infinite Playlist” centered on one amazing night in the lives of high schoolers; the vastly underrated “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” had Steve Carell and Keira Knightley dealing with the apocalypse and the on-set of middle age, and now there’s the utterly charming “The Meddler”, which advances into the issues of the older generation. While the title may sound like some D-list Marvel superhero, the only villains being defeated in this film are grief and loneliness, slain at the hands of Scafaria’s witty script and some perfect comic chemistry between Rose Byrne and Susan Sarandon.
At 68-years-old, Sarandon is just as lively and funny as ever, bringing to life a role that could have been one-dimensional in the wrong hands. She plays the recently-widowed Marnie, who decides to deal with her grief by packing up her stuff and hightailing it out of New Jersey to Los Angeles near her filmmaker daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). If Marnie is in mourning you’d never know it; she’s too much of an Energizer Bunny for that. She’s always off doing something, emboldened by her brand new iPhone, whether it’s attending weddings for Lori’s gay friends (one played by Cecily Strong), volunteering at the hospital, or hanging out at the Apple Store. Mostly, though, she’s up in Lori’s business. She’s always around, delivering bagels (always salt), texting, calling, and offering pearls of wisdom that Lori is not up to hearing. Lori has her own problems coping with her break-up from a superstar actor (Jason Ritter), and it doesn’t help that Marnie keeps talking about him.
But Marnie isn’t a pest, or at least she isn’t an irritant in the way these characters usually come off. We recognize that Lori needs her space, but we also see why Marnie is who she is. People deal with grief in different ways, and one way of doing so is to fill that empty space with the love of others. Or in Marnie’s case, by helping make other lives better. So she’s incredibly generous with her wealth (a minor point that she got a huge insurance payment) in order to do as much good as possible in an attempt to move on. It’s a simple message, told by Scafaria in a delightful, well-structured manner that emphasizes what she’s trying to say and nothing more, because this film very easily could have been something else.
Far too many of these “self-discover movies” come up with some contrived circumstance to go on a literal journey of discovery. Usually it’s a road trip of some kind because it’s easy to understand going from point A to point B. Scafaria is content to let her characters breathe and deal with their various issues in way that is natural and, as it turns out, funny in the way that real life often is. That approach also works when dealing with Marnie’s love interest, Zipper (J.K. Simmons doing his best Sam Elliot impression), a retired cop who rides a Harley and has chickens that love Dolly Parton. Granted, he’s the quirkiest, most unbelievable character of all, but this doesn’t become a movie about him and Marnie’s relationship. The central connection always stays between Marnie and Lori; even when they are separated for stretches of time that never goes away.
All that said; one wishes we could have seen more of Marnie’s world and the friendships she forms. We don’t see nearly enough of Strong or Lucy Punch in supporting roles, and there’s a wealth of potential in the scenes we get of Sarandon with comedian Jarrod Carmichael, who plays Marnie’s favorite Apple Store Genius. “The Meddler” is good-hearted and well-intentioned, and unlike Marnie, it gets its message across without having to nag us. If there’s a film to take mom to for Mother’s Day, this is it.