Although Lorene Scafaria’s tender, bittersweet comedy The Meddler, starring Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons, is marred by the occasional cliché, it’s also an unexpectedly perceptive film about loneliness, grief and mother-daughter relationships. After the death of her beloved husband, Joe, Marnie Minervini (Sarandon) moves to Los Angeles to be close to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), a successful, but frustrated, screenwriter. Lori is still recovering from a recent break up with her actor boyfriend (Jason Ritter) and resents her smothering mother’s frequent attempts to connect (Marnie is addicted to texting her daughter).
Unabashed, Marnie attempts to charm Lori’s friends instead, freely dispensing advice, offering to babysit and generously agreeing to pay for one friend’s wedding. She even drops in on Lori’s therapist, hoping to learn more about her daughter’s state of mind. Lori throws herself into her work while Marnie struggles to stave off loneliness. Marnie’s attempts to keep busy lead to some surprising encounters. She befriends a salesman in an Apple store (Jerrod Carmichael) and encourages him to take evening classes. She even offers to drives him there and back. She reunites a confused old woman in hospital with her family. But her most memorable run in is with Zipper (Simmons) a retired cop who, by contrast, rescues Marnie on more than one occasion.
Zipper rides a Harley Davidson, keeps chickens, and plays guitar. There’s an evident romantic attraction between the pair but Marnie is hesitant to take things further and, we realise, she still hasn’t got over the death of Joe. This is further underlined when she visits Joe’s family in New York and they have to remind her that it is actually two years since he died and not one. Marnie has lost all track of time – that’s what grief does. Her hatred of silence, her constant need to chatter, to connect with others, is so that she doesn’t have to think about her loss. By contrast, Lori’s grief manifests itself in the frustration she shows Marnie when she oversteps the boundaries she has so assiduously erected.
Scafaria is writing from personal experience and it shows in some of the understated but utterly credible scenes which illuminate the grieving process. There are some cringe-worthy moments in a narrative that is, on one level, about meddling mothers and fresh starts. But take The Meddler as something a bit more, a film about loneliness and loss, and there are ample rewards. Not least Sarandon’s pitch-perfect performance as a mother who is both frustrating and fun to be around and whose restlessness helps her to remain sane.