Let it be said, right off the bat, that Susan Sarandon is magnificent as doting, well-intentioned mother Marnie Minervini in The Meddler, infusing the character with magnetism while still allowing us to grasp the neediness that fuels her behavior, for better and for worse. But Sarandon’s triumph here would not be possible without a screenplay that gives her plenty to work with. Even among films like this that style themselves as “character studies”—films that deign to closely observe a character’s behavior in order to get at his/her perhaps inexplicable psychological essence—the sheer amount of detail in writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s script is astonishing.
Some of that attention to detail can be heard in Scafaria’s dialogue, both directly and implicitly. Marnie isn’t exactly the type of person to say what she truly means and feels. In the film’s opening scene—when Marnie is heard in voiceover talking about settling into her new Los Angeles surroundings, the images often contradicting her descriptions—one can already tell we’re in the presence of someone who is overcompensating for some inner pain. Gradually we get a sense of the source of that pain: chiefly, the recent loss of her long-time husband, Joe, which she deals with by basically becoming charitable to an extreme degree toward others, including her not-always-welcoming daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), who herself is also dealing with the emotional fallout from a recent breakup. Scafaria, though, makes all this apparent not through clumsy expositional dialogue, but through natural-seeming hints: a mention of the past here, a shot of an old family photo there.
Still, Scafaria digs deeper. Privilege is a major unspoken factor behind Marnie’s extravagantly generous behavior (which includes a sizable loan to a friend of her daughter’s for her long-delayed dream wedding). It’s hinted that Joe left a lot of money to his wife, which perhaps now leaves her at a loss as to how exactly to spend both the money and her free time, thus offering a plausible explanation for her “meddling” ways. Privilege could also explain her optimistic worldview, her wholehearted belief in helping people out whenever she can, often by throwing money at a problem in exchange for a bit of companionship, especially when Lori goes off to New York to assist behind-the-scenes in the shoot for a TV show she wrote. One can glimpse this perspective not just in the aura of sincerity she projects onto her behavior, but in her occasional expressions of childlike glee, especially as she gets to know Zipper (J.K. Simmons)—a retired cop who could potentially replace the hole Joe’s death left in her heart—better: the expressions of a woman giddy with the idea of love.
The result is a character portrait of genuine complexity. Marnie isn’t an unholy nagging terror; we can’t help but see the intrusive presence Lori sees in her mother while understanding how everyone else sees near-angelic generosity in her actions. Thankfully, Scafaria, while full of affection for the character, is clear-eyed enough about her to entertain both poles of response. Perhaps, ultimately, Scafaria has a bit too much affection: During the film’s last half hour, the sirector loses her nerve, devoting much of this final stretch to resolving the various internal and external conflicts in ways that feel too pat, as if she was afraid of leaving us with too negative an impression of this flawed character. Thankfully, the more troubling nuances in Scafaria’s screenplay and Sarandon’s performance until then are strong enough to linger long after its insistently life-affirming fade-out.
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Writer: Lorene Scafaria
Starring: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch, Michael McKean
Release Date: April 22, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.