It’s a tired old Hollywood cliche: Writer spends the entire movie trying to pound out either a decent screenplay or the great American novel, and just as he (or she) is about to give up, they ditch that project and decide to write something sincere instead. With “The Meddler,” that’s not the story in the movie, but the true story of the movie. While not a direct apology for her abominable directorial debut, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s sophomore feature returns to what works for her, as she draws upon personal experience to deliver a heartfelt dramedy that audiences are sure to appreciate. Bound to be among Sony Classics’ top 2016 performers, “The Meddler” serves as a lovely valentine not just to Scafaria’s mom, Gail, but to mothers everywhere — including the luminous Susan Sarandon in a role that seems to come naturally.
Though many actresses regret the moment they stop being considered for love-interest roles and instead start to be sent mother parts instead, Sarandon has actually delivered some of the best roles of her career in the latter mode (“Lorenzo’s Oil,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” Lonely Island’s “Mother Lover” musicvideo). But “The Meddler” is an uncommonly special gift for the star, whose Marnie Minervini embodies both sides: matriarch and romantic lead, (s)mothering Scafaria’s obvious screen proxy, Lori (Rose Byrne), while fending off the advances of two prospective suitors, played by J.K. Simmons and Michael McKean.
Not every writer is fortunate enough to have a mother who serves as an ongoing source of material, and those who do nearly always go negative. But exploiting one’s parent so that others can relate all comes down to whether the filmmaker in question can strike a tone that elevates what might have played like an agonizing therapy session into a specific and identifiable human story (the difference between, say, Albert Brooks’ affectionately barbed “Mother” and Dustin Lance Black’s tortured “Virginia”).
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In this case, while the title suggests Scafaria resents Gail sticking her nose into everybody’s business (especially her own), Sarandon plays Marnie as such a well-meaning soul, it’s clear the film will serve as more than just an excuse to complain. Far from it. Inspired by Gail’s decision to move out to Los Angeles, after the death of her husband, where she could be closer to her showbiz-employed daughter, “The Meddler” feels less like a venting session than it does a collection of nearly incredible true stories too good for Scafaria to have kept to herself.
Marnie can be a bit simple when it comes to little things, like how to operate her new iPhone or when to respect other people’s boundaries, although those shortcomings prove to be assets when viewed in the right light. Case in point: Her techno-deficiencies make her a regular visitor at her local Apple Store, while her invasive curiosity leads to her motivating Genius Bar staffer Frank (Jerrod Carmichael) to pursue a law degree. Where anyone else might have stopped there, Marnie takes her involvement two steps farther, first offering to drive this near-stranger to class, and then downloading online courses so she can help him study.
Blessed with a more-than-generous inheritance from her late husband, Marnie blends a guileless naivete with an instinctively generous spirit. When confronted with a problem, it’s her instinct to help, which manifests itself in all sorts of heartwarming ways — scenes that might seem corny if they didn’t come from a place of truth. Like the $13,000 gay marriage she offers to underwrite for one of her daughter’s friends (Gail really did suggest as much for Scafaria’s pal — and “The Meddler” producer — Joy Gorman Wettels).
With no car chases or artificial villains to get in the way, and no treacly contrivances to force unearned emotions, the bright, vaguely sitcom-styled movie is free to make audiences feel good on its own genuine terms — though in retrospect, it might be taking things a bit far to set this reluctant widow up with a Harley-riding ex-cop who serenades his pet chickens with Dolly Parton standards. As with Sarandon, it takes an actor of Simmons’ caliber to make such a character seem as organic as the free-range eggs he raises. But that romantic subplot is a necessary one as well, and not just because Marnie has so much love to give either.
While “The Meddler” serves as an homage to Scafaria’s mother, it’s just as much about moving on after the death of her father, Joseph, an Italian immigrant who didn’t live to witness his daughter’s current success. And yet his very soul seems to inhabit the pic, appearing not just in old family photos but tenderly “resurrected” for a touching scene in which Marnie visits the Gotham set of her daughter’s transparently autobiographical TV pilot.
To the extent that the film is therapeutic, Scafaria clearly wrote it as a way to process her and Gail’s wildly different approaches to processing Joseph’s passing — going so far as to involve actual therapy sessions, in which Mom decides to see the same shrink in hopes of hearing what Lori won’t share with her directly. Scafaria can be hard on herself at times, as evidenced by the morose Byrne performance (she spends much of the movie taking her mother for granted while pining after an ex-b.f. played by Jason Ritter). Still, the self-critical approach is far preferable to painting herself as the victim, and despite the countless movies lecturing auds to “write what you know,” far too few actually make it to the screen.