All actors possess their own personal gateway into becoming a character. Some require deep memory mining (Method). Others require lengthy conversations with the director about seemingly unrelated philosophical topics. And some just need a single physical characteristic around which they can develop a character’s entire being. Susan Sarandon is a rare breed who employs the tactics of a character actor — being comfortable playing her “type” — while also doing the heavy lifting of a lead who has to transform into someone very far from her own personality. Sarandon’s turn in Lorene Scafaria’s indie comedy The Meddler might just be the perfect showcase for her particular talent.
At the outset, the voice-over from meddling mother Marnie (Sarandon), leaving the first of many messages for her daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), feels off because of an overly pronounced New Jersey accent that sounds a little forced from Sarandon’s familiar voice. But the moment Marnie’s words connect with Sarandon’s face, the character is real, and we see this middle-aged woman jaunting around the tourist hot spots of Los Angeles, avoiding difficult discussions about her husband’s death while dispensing advice in sentences starting with “You should…” and “What you have to do is…”
Sarandon is a beautiful woman, but her beauty doesn’t lead this story, which is a relief; her management has been screaming, “Look, she’s still sexy!” for the past 10 years. (The PR kit actually uses the word “sexy” in the first line of Sarandon’s bio.) I'd prefer movies that acknowledge that a 60-something woman can be a complete human being — which includes sexiness — rather than making it the focus. The Meddler is one of the few recent films to utilize Sarandon completely in this way without getting into unbelievable schlock (ahem, Tammy). It's a fun and funny movie that delivers an honest portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship and the heartache that comes not just from losing someone but from moving on after they’re gone. Unfortunately, it’s not flawless.
Making an ultimately positive movie means the possibility of inconceivable gooey sweetness. Writer-director Scafaria, known for the equally adorable Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, walks the line by giving Lori acerbic tantrums to offset Marnie’s overbearing goodness. When Lori’s not in the picture, the film suffers.
Marnie's interactions with the other characters tend toward goofiness, especially Jillian (Cecily Strong), a woman who readily accepts $13,000 from Marnie to have her dream wedding, even though Marnie just met her. That also goes for an African-American man (Jerrod Carmichael) Marnie’s helping with his night school — a visit from the cops means she has to eat a bag of weed to protect him, but it sends her on only a mildly high journey, despite the fact that she scarfed enough to lay her out flat for days. And, wait, Blues Traveler is somehow a big part of the story? Such moments seem too fabricated for this quaintly realistic narrative.
Hands down, what propels this film into likablity is the acting — from J.K. Simmons playing a Sam Elliott twin with a stellar mustache to Rose Byrne nailing the neuroses of being a writer. The Meddler is what you watch before a weekend with your mother to remind yourself she’s doing it all from the goodness of her heart, not to drive you crazy.