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Grief appears in many forms. In the movies, it usually involves long, tense silences around the breakfast table followed by explosions of anger and eventual catharsis. In real life, feelings of loss can express themselves in sneakier ways. The Meddler, by director Lorene Scafaria understands this. It is a bright, bubbly, and complicated tale about a subject Hollywood often sees in the simplest, most reductive terms. It’s also intensely personal, and even if its portrayal of grief doesn’t match up precisely to yours, we should all appreciate the novelty of its approach.
Susan Sarandon, at the top of her game, plays Marnie, a recently widowed Brooklynite who has moved to Los Angeles to insert herself into the life of her unhappy daughter, Laurie (Rose Byrne). Smartly, Scafaria begins the film after this move has already taken place, instead of showing reactions to her husband’s death. This way, we feel the tension of the situation immediately. Marnie shows up unexpectedly in Laurie’s life, not unlike how she shows up in ours. After Laurie blows her off, Marnie takes her meddling elsewhere.
Sarandon is a beam of sunshine in these early scenes, with Marnie suppressing her grief and reveling in her new, liberated existence. She only hints at what the cracks in her bliss represent. Instead, she takes every scrap of attention she gets and uses her only currency—a hefty inheritance—to bribe her way into the lives of total strangers. The smart, young guy (Jerrod Carmichael) who sold her a phone at the Apple store? She convinces him to take night classes and ends up driving him there three times a week. Laurie’s friend Jillian (SNL’s Cecily Strong) who wants to renew her vows but can’t afford a real ceremony? Marnie offers to pay for the whole thing. She sees herself as a person who is generous and open to new experiences, but when something more real offers itself—in the form of a hunky, older ex-cop (J.K. Simmons)—Marnie runs for the hills.
You can feel the years of therapy that must have gone into the screenplay. Scafaria is basically Laurie’s age, and remarkably, she has made a film that shows far greater empathy for her difficult, overbearing mother. Even the title is a trick; the meddling mother is a stereotype in films from early Hollywood all the way to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but here Scafaria examines, subverts, and ultimately deconstructs the cliché. Sarandon is forgivably eccentric in early scenes—showing up everywhere with bagels, oversharing at public events, and displaying an uncommon fascination with serial killers—but, over the course of the film, each quirk is revealed to be a product of her grief, creating a journey for the viewer that shifts and deepens as it goes.
The film is so light and amiable, however, that you might miss the point. Scafaria’s pedestrian visual style can lull the viewer into a sense of complacency. It often makes you feel like you’re sitting at home on your couch on a school night, even if it’s a Saturday night at the cinema. But it’s no matter. The line between television and film is so blurred these days that saying The Meddler is comparable to a top-notch episode of Parenthood is hardly faint praise. Lest it be misconstrued, allow me to clarify: This is a delightful film.
The Meddler opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row.