The smooth, cozy charm of writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s “The Meddler” offers considerable seriocomic satisfaction in its story of a mother and a daughter, the meddler and the meddled with, respectively. I don’t get the high-end praise for this medium entity. But as a performance vehicle, it’s nice and spacious.
Susan Sarandon is Marnie Minervini, recently widowed New Jersey transplant, whose late husband left her with plenty of money to go with her generous-slash-compulsive instincts. She has moved to Los Angeles to be near her TV writer daughter, Lori, a romantically thwarted workaholic played by Rose Byrne. Shrewdly, “The Meddler” refuses to gin up major-league conflict and resolution in its central relationship. The tensions come and go; they’re plausible and human-scaled.
The jokes run along the lines of Marnie making herself at home in her daughter’s life, over and over. (At one point Marnie sees her daughter’s therapist, played by the wittily sphinxlike Amy Landecker of “Transparent,” to find out what she’s been telling her.) Asked by an exasperated Lori to respect her boundaries, Marnie doesn’t back away entirely. But she redirects her energies, social and financial, all over town. She finances her daughter’s friend’s wedding; she befriends her Apple Genius Bar pro, played by Jerrod Carmichael, becoming his de facto chauffeur and confidant. (Apple and Crate and Barrel receive so much product placement, it’s more like product implant.)
Wandering onto a movie set by accident, Marnie encounters a retired LA cop working security. This is what might be termed “the Sam Elliott role,” in this case taken by J.K. Simmons, who has grown a miniature version of a Sam Elliott mustache for the occasion. At first Marnie resists his gentle advances; she’s still coping with the loss of her husband. But the man rides a Harley and raises chickens and plays guitar up in his dream hideaway in Topanga Canyon, so “The Meddler” does a little meddling of its own, steering Marnie in the direction she obviously should go, on her own terms, all in good time.
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Scafaria’s previous directorial feature credit, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” never found its desired blend of quirk and sincerity; this one’s far more successful. We’ve seen these types of characters before, but not played by these particular and highly skilled actresses. The LA on screen in “The Meddler” is a place of breezy, sunny good fortune, unencumbered by most people’s financial realities. At one point, a harried Lori, on the set of her TV pilot, fields a grousy request by one of the show’s stars for “something less jokey” in the dialogue department. Clearly, Scafaria has heard that one before.
In a director’s statement for the film’s production notes, Scafaria acknowledged her script’s strong autobiographical elements, from her own father’s death to her own mother’s relocation from Jersey to LA. “I wanted to be honest about it — how lonely it was, how mean I could be, how annoying she could be, but also how generous and giving,” Scafaria wrote. She allows for only so much in the way of real pain or unresolved feelings, but that stuff would’ve turned “The Meddler” into something else entirely, for better or worse.
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Amy Landecker.
Director: Lorene Scafaria.
Running time: 1:40.
Rated: PG-13, for brief drug content.