Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Meddler (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Lorene Scafaria


What a wonderful film The Meddler is. A bittersweet comedy about love, grief and the type of agonizing familial relationships that fill you with guilt and dread. Susan Sarandon stars as Marnie, a Brooklynite widow living in Los Angeles to be close to her daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). A year after her husband, and Lori's father, has passed, Marnie still struggles to fill the hours of the day. Despite her aimless activity, Marnie is filled with a generous - at times overbearing - spirit, and pools all her attention on Lori, who's going through her own form of grief, trying to recover from a devastating break-up with Jacob (Jason Ritter), a rising actor who left her for a younger woman. Marnie is persistent in her need to help her troubled, unmarried daughter. Lori works as a screenwriter, and her current job on a television pilot adds another layer of stress that isn't helped by Marnie's constant presence. Even when Marnie isn't around she calls incessantly, leaving long, babbling voicemails with detailed tales of her day. Lori cannot handle it, the lack of boundaries forcing her to be stern, even hurtful to her well-meaning mother. For Marnie, all of life seems fine to those around her. She gets along with everyone, including a Apple Store Genius Bar employee named Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael), and one of Lori's close friends Jillian (Cecily Strong). She doesn't find it strange to offer to give rides to Freddy so he can get to night school after work. What does she have to do that she can't help the young man out? She doesn't think twice about offering to pay for Jillian's proper wedding. Her late husband has left her with so much money, why not use it to help others who could use it? As Lori distances herself more and more from her grieving mother, Marnie finds startling ways to fill the void of the family that she's lost.

I'm not sure how much of The Meddler is autobiographical, but the film's writer/director Lorene Scafaria, is a successful television writer. Her first film, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, had a similar success with blending strong sentimentality and the kind of harsh human truth that can make that kind of sentimentality palatable. Seeking a Friend was a poignant buddy comedy about existential dread that never managed to get morose or contrived. The Meddler also deals with the concept of death, but it's more interested in how it effects the living, how we all choose to accept - or not accept - the fact that sooner or later everyone we love will be gone. It helps to have a character as magnetic as Marnie, and an actress as great as Sarandon to play her. Marnie could have easily just been a live-action version of the character Louise from Bob's Burgers, and in the film's opening moments, it seems like that's where the character is heading, but Scafaria and Sarandon have such a strong understanding of this woman. Marnie is the kind of person who's self-sacrifice is her own version of self-destruction; a person who's uncapped generosity can leave her empty, with no further resources for herself. The dynamic between Lori and Marnie can be painful - it's difficult to see a daughter with so little patience with a mother that's trying so hard, but its exactly Marnie's emotional strength that is so unbearable to Lori. How can one find the time to grieve the end of a relationship, let alone the loss of a father, when one is faced with a mother who decides that external grief isn't an option? Things begin to shift for Marnie when Lori takes a sudden job in New York City and tells her mother that she'll be out of touch. It's in Lori's absence that Marnie's relationship with Freddy and Jillian gets so strong, but she also meets Zipper (JK Simmons), a film set security guard and retired LAPD officer who immediately takes a liking to her. But even despite her immediate chemistry with the motorcycle-riding Zipper, Marnie still cannot allow herself to be happy in the face of her husband's death.

Zipper is a character that's so obviously written for Sam Elliot, right down to the drawl and the mustache, but Elliot played such a similar character in I'll See You In My Dreams last year, it may have been hard to see him reprise such familiar territory so soon. Dreams was one of my favorite films of 2015, and it was another film about a woman of an advanced age (that time, Blythe Danner) who is overcoming the loss of a husband, and tentatively approaching a new romance. Both that film and The Meddler are so funny, and yet so heartbreaking. They get that life is a journey through pain in hopes of finding something, or someone, to make it worthwhile. Though neither film allows this cynical view to affect the story they tell. The Meddler, in particular, is imbued so fully with the spirited performance from Sarandon. The 69-year-old actress has been such a Hollywood staple for over thirty years, its easy to take her actual talent for granted. Much like Danner in Dreams last year, as well as Sally Field in Hello, My Name Is Doris from earlier this year, indie films are proving that they do not have an age-bias when it comes to actresses, and better yet, they're willing to craft films around these women, willing to tell their stories about their lives, loves and humiliations. Like Field and Danner, Sarandon crushes her part, and is able to take Marnie from caricature to full-fleshed human being from scene to scene. Both Byrne and Simmons do good work here, as well as Michael McKean in a very short role as another older man battling for Marnie's attention. Byrne has proven to be such a rock solid supporting actress for these kinds of comedies, while Simmons takes a Sam Elliot impersonation and really makes something sweet out of it. Scafaria seems to work well with actors, and it helps that she writes such great parts. The Meddler might remind some of the films of Nicole Holofcener, and it does rank with some of her better films. Like Holofcener, Scafaria knows that the strength of women goes beyond motherhood or sensuality, but it doesn't mean that that's still not a very big part of it.

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