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Film Review – The Meddler

3 min read

It takes a while to pin down what exactly makes writer and director Lorene Scafaria’s second studio effort feel so damn peculiar and distinctive. On the surface The Meddler looks like standard Hollywood fare. The film stars Susan Sarandon as Marnie Minervini; a recent widow and New Jersey native who relocates to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne).

As the title suggests, Marnie immediately and aggressively involves herself in Lori’s affairs. She texts relentlessly, leaves half a dozen tortuously long, meandering voice mails every day, invites herself over constantly, goes through her daughter’s search history while she’s in the shower and even visits her therapist. It isn’t long before Lori accepts an out-of-town professional opportunity in order to escape Marnie’s sincere but maddening and infantilizing brand of motherly affection.

This is where things get interesting, because rather than following Rose Byrne’s attractive, ambitious, 30-something TV writer character to New York, the film remains in LA with her directionless, 60-something (though still very attractive) mother. Sarandon might be playing the titular role, but it’s a genuine shock to realize that The Meddler is actually about her. Some of the shock is the result of Hollywood’s longstanding reluctance to make movies featuring female protagonists over the age of forty, but mostly its motivated by our expectations for a character like Marnie.

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The doting, smothering, boundary-disrespecting mother figure is a familiar and pervasive trope in contemporary popular culture. Meddling mothers have been a sitcom staple for decades, and are usually either Jewish or Italian. Marnie represents the more likeable end of the spectrum, in that she’s embarrassing, over-nurturing and interfering, rather than controlling, hypercritical or overbearing. As big-hearted, generous and endearing as Sarandon’s Marnie is though, it’s her central place in the narrative that truly marks her as special.

Meddling mothers are almost exclusively defined and portrayed as supporting characters in someone else’s story. They nag, they cajole, they give advice, they provide pathos and laughter and fundamentally function to assist or hinder the protagonist’s development as a person. We first meet Marnie two years after the death of her husband, and Sarandon skilfully conveys the lonely, purposeless melancholy underlying her character’s sunny exterior. When Lori leaves for New York, Marnie begins lavishing all her motherly affection and a considerable amount of her money on relative strangers. She drives the sweet young Apple Store clerk (Jerrod Carmichael) who helps her with her new iPhone to and from his night classes. She volunteers at a local hospital. She pays for and helps to plan a wedding for one of Lori’s friends (played by Cecily Strong), despite having difficulty remembering the woman’s name.

It soon becomes clear that Marnie’s compulsive helpfulness, although sincere and appreciated, is motivated to some extent by an unhealthy perception of herself as a supporting character in her own life. She automatically prioritizes Lori’s feelings and needs above her own, and it’s implied she had a similar dynamic with her late husband. Marnie’s intense discomfort at the idea of being the primary focus in her own story is apparent in the way Sarandon often hovers and cringes at the edge of the frame in The Meddler’s early scenes.

Things begin to turn around for Marnie when she meets Zipper, a divorced former cop played by J.K. Simmons. Simmons does lovely work here as the one person in Marnie’s life who doesn’t want or need her help, just her company. He imbues his character with a subtle but irresistible warmth and gazes at Sarandon with such unambiguous and unashamed longing that it forces Marnie to change the way that she looks at herself and start thinking about her own happiness as well as the happiness of others.