Susan Sarandon is front and centre in The Meddler as Marnie Minervini, a widow who lavishes affection and generosity upon those around her. The title is the simplest we’ve yet had from writer-director Lorene Scafaria, who also gave us Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World and Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, but it’s a little reductive too. Since her husband Joe left her with more money than she could ever hope to spend on herself, Marnie has doted on her screenwriting daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), even moving from New York to Los Angeles to be around her. Lori has just gone through a bad break-up and is more exasperated than comforted by her mother’s attentions and decides to throw herself into working on a TV pilot to enforce some boundaries so that she can be alone. But Marnie doesn’t want to be alone and she throws herself into helping others, from driving Genius Bar technician Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael) to night school, to fully funding an elaborate do-over wedding for one of Lori’s friends (Cecily Strong) and her wife. She also befriends an eligible retired cop (JK Simmons), but the looming second anniversary of Joe’s death leaves her hesitant to take things any further. If the plot as we’ve described it sounds incidental, that’s because it is, but we can’t tell you how much difference it makes to have this sort of thing be about a character who likes people and is generally nice, rather than labouring under their own self-absorption like the protagonists of countless other LA-set dramedies in recent years. You might automatically roll your eyes and write off the idea of someone who can give iPads to their casual acquaintances having any real problems, but the execution is, for once, very nicely done. Sarandon is on really strong form here, not overplaying Scafaria’s well-drawn character but playing it up to where you understand how Byrne’s harried writer feels exhausted by her. She has bubbly chemistry with everyone in the cast, especially with polar opposites Byrne and Strong, one of whom is poisonously tipsy for much of the film while the other is genuinely bowled over and ecstatic, but the moments in which Marnie is truly alone provide the texture that keeps this from being too fluffy. Aside from that, this has something we’ve genuinely never seen in another film and that’s JK Simmons as a romantic lead. Tempo and pictures of Spider-Man are the furthest thing from his mind, and from ours, as he drives Marnie around on his motorcycle, tends to his pet chickens and (we’re not making this up) muses about starting a Dolly Parton covers band one day. His skills as a character actor are undeniable, but this is an unusual and enjoyable departure. The cast is rounded out by performances from the likes of Michael McKean and Lucy Punch, who don’t get an awful lot to do but provide more of that texture we were talking about. Given the prominence of iPads and the Genius store, some promotional consideration from Apple may well have bolstered what would have more likely been a mid-budget studio movie back in the day, rather than a Sony Pictures Classic release, but Scafaria’s script has the same uncommon compassion that characterised her previous films and it makes for a comfortable if utterly inoffensive way to spend 100 minutes. When Simmons accepted his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Whiplash last year, he used his speech to remind us all, “If you’re lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call ‘em. Don’t text. Don’t email. Call them on the phone. Tell ‘em you love ‘em, and thank them, and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you.” As a paean to mums everywhere, The Meddler leaves you with much the same message and though it definitely takes place in a rarefied atmosphere, it’s warm, open and surprisingly effective. Oh, and for the sake of full disclosure- we liked Marnie even before it emerges that she’s a big fan of Jason Statham movies, but that’s also how you know she’s one of the good ones.
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