Movie Review: The Meddler
Susan Sarandon’s performance as a mother looking to insert herself in her daughter’s life defies a sit-com styled script to find the mushy heart of motherhood
Starring: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, JK Simmons, Cecily Strong
Directed by: Lorene Scafaria
Running time: 1hr 40 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
Susan Sarandon is “The Meddler” — and because it’s her, meddlesome doesn’t seem so bad.
The veteran brings something close to magical to the mono-dimensional character of Marnie, a widow looking to insert herself into the life her sullen and forlorn daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), a sweater-wearing single gal still sour over a breakup with a bad boyfriend.
The role is sit-com material. It’s a part designed for the likes of Nancy Walker, or a Bette Midler: An auburn-haired older lady who once saw herself as a Rita Hayworth, but surrendered to the life of a housewife and now hides regret behind pearl-drop progressives.
She’s an empty archetype of female character looking for a contrived situation with comic potential, and writer-director Lorene Scafaria cooks up one formulaic scene after another, from attending parties without her daughter, to talking to her kid’s therapist and arranging a lesbian marriage for two women she barely knows.
The movie is called The Meddler, after all. So we watch a lot of meddling, or at least what writer-director Lorene Scafaria scripted as over-cooked moments of unwanted interference from mom. We’re supposed to sigh in exasperation, just like Lori, every time Marnie lands knee-deep in Lori’s life, picking at problems that are not her own. Yet, thanks to Sarandon’s performance and her ability to find the loving truth of Marnie’s character, the meddling becomes the most enjoyable part of the movie.
In fact, Marnie feels like a much-needed antidote to today’s insular world of high-tech communication and stunted emoji-fied expression. She actually talks to people. She looks them in the eye. She asks about feelings, and she even seems to care what the answer is.
Marnie isn’t afraid of emotion, but in this simplified reduction of mother-daughter dynamics, she’s suppressing grief over the loss of her husband by immersing herself in her daughter’s drama.
You can feel Scafaria’s finger on the scale as she tries to tip the balance of sympathy in favour of Lori, her obvious alter ego, but Lori is such a self-indulgent sourpuss there’s no contest.
Marnie is the hero of this story, and every time Scafaria’s pen tries to lance some ugly truth about mothers and meddling, she ends up stabbing herself because she’s so unlikable.
Byrne handles her side of the performance perfectly — disappearing in baggy cashmere sweaters and wearing a permanent scowl on porcelain cheeks.
Her misery is tedious. More critically, it’s not funny because it just comes off as mean. Lori thinks she’s being a brave martyr by hiding her pain from the people who love her, but she’s just being selfish and cold.
The only thing that redeems her is Marnie because Marnie brings love to the frame. Sure, sometimes there is too much love and it makes a mess, spilling over the well-defined edges of Lori’s emotional dungeon. But as this movie proves, it’s better to flail in a tidal wave of feeling than die slowly in a desert of desiccated expression.
Sarandon presents this truth in every line of Brooklyn-tinged dialogue, in every wide-eyed moment of misunderstanding and every unapologetic gesture of protectiveness. Sarandon seems to understand that meddler is just another name for mother, and while the script tries to find the comic distance between the two, the veteran thespian rescues the whole film by making them inseparable.
THE EX-PRESS, May 6, 2016