By Michael S. Goldberger
If you believe that contemporary movies are too full of gratuitous violence, non-stop action and inundating special effects, then you might call director-writer Lorene Scafaria’s “The Meddler” the exception that proves the rule. Starring Susan Sarandon as Marnie Minervini, the loving helicopter mom who just can’t keep out of her thirty-something daughter’s business, it is a sweet cupcake of a movie, drizzled with just enough sour strife to make it satisfyingly real. We all know these characters. Some of them are us, and happy to indulgently play out our anxieties.
Act #1, scene #1, Mrs. Minervini, an attractive, recently widowed woman in her sixties, has jettisoned her New Jersey life for the perfect Los Angeles condo, specifically to be near her daughter Lori, a screenwriter on the precipice of major recognition. Suffice it to note, the accomplished scribe isn’t thrilled with Mom’s invasion. It means innumerable daily texts, phone calls and the random unannounced visit. To phrase the mommy-daughter syndrome politely, they love each other, but drive each other crazy. But Marnie doesn’t mind. She’s undaunted.
Subscribing to the Yiddish axiom that you are only as happy as your saddest child, she is determined to be dizzyingly blissful. Right now she’s particularly upset because Lori, effectively portrayed by Rose Byrne, is once again estranged from off-and-on beau, Jacob (Jason Ritter), an actor. It doesn’t look good. Featuring herself a James Bond of parental interference, the title character figures she has a license to meddle. She’s good at it… maybe even world class.
To stay limber between forays into Lori’s personal turmoil, and as therapy following the loss of her spouse, she extends her butting-in wherever it’ll seep. She’s here, she’s there, she’s everywhere. She becomes self-appointed career counselor to Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael), the Apple store techie she believes is made for better things. And, thanks to a sizeable nest egg left by her dear, sainted Joe, Marnie takes it upon herself to help Lori’s friend Jillian — whom she absentmindedly refers to as “What’s her name?”— have the wedding she could never afford.
There’s just enough whim, eccentricity and fairy dust to supply the wish fulfillment we expect from benevolent souls like Marnie. She is part Auntie Mame, part Mary Poppins and, at least for the length of the film, we contentedly revel in the possibility that not everyone occupying the planet is trying to scam us out of our money, run us off the road, steal our password, or make a mockery of the Presidency. But then we’re not Lori. She doesn’t care if Mom is Mother Cabrini. She wants to be alone.
Well, that might be OK for Garbo. But while it’s against our better judgement, when Lori weeps out of loneliness, disappointment or general disillusionment, anyone with an inkling of parental sentiment can’t help but hope that this grand intercessor will somehow work her magic. In any case, our mood is lightened by Marnie’s bubbly optimism, joie de vie and sheer energy. She’s willing to try anything, the perennial optimist with a ceaseless wanderlust and a smile to match.
Only thing is, and maybe it’s the husband in me, but isn’t she a little too much the merry widow? Oh sure, she invokes Joe’s memory at several opportunities, praises his foresight and generosity, and occasionally hearkens back to the good old days. But I don’t think it’s much past Marnie’s grieve expiration date when the story’s perfunctory suitor enters stage right. Then again, retired cop Zipper is played with complementing likeability by J.K. Simmons, and who am I to pass judgement, let alone begrudge the movie its little bit of harmless, feel-good fantasy?
It’s a nice, heartwarming film, chock full of the therapeutic empathy that comes in handy when you’re living the human experience. So we forgive its formulaic trespasses in consideration of the warm accessibility Miss Sarandon’s tour de force makes possible. Indeed, Lori wishes Mom would bug off…the barometer in Marnie’s concerned eyes too painfully perceiving. Still, she knows in her heart of hearts that someday she’ll miss that unconditional devotion. Bottom line, there’s nothing like a mother’s love, even if it sometimes makes you nuts.
As I’m a paragraph short, I read it as a sign to state my credentials for reviewing this film. In college, I wished I had parents like my rich friend Dave’s, bluebloods who were cool, aloof, dropped off the cash and asked no questions. My mother loaded me up with care packages and tried to monitor my every breath. I didn’t appreciate the lesson then. But one day as I agonized over the intrusiveness, pulling snacks and socks from a recently delivered parcel, Dave, who had everything but “The Meddler” in his life, opined, “I sure wish I had a mom like yours.”
“The Meddler,” rated PG-13, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by Lorene Scafaria and stars Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne and J.K. Simmons. Running time: 100 minutes