In some ways, the key scene of The Meddler, a new comedy from Seeking a Friend For the End of the World writer and director Lorene Scafaria, is the first. Recent widow Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) lies silently in bed with a look of concern and sadness on her face. There’s a pause, then the voiceover kicks in with the word “anyway.” It’s a tic of Marnie’s to start thoughts this way, and the film uses it as a running gag as she leaves voicemail after voicemail with the same opening: “Anyway.” It’s funny, but it’s also a defense mechanism, a word she uses as much for herself as anyone else, something to push the bad thoughts away, and the problems she can’t fix, as she focuses on the ones she can — or at least she thinks she can.
Marnie’s full of advice whether it’s the best way to find a new apartment (Zillow) or the best way to conceive a baby after sex (you have to lean back a bit and let gravity help). And, as the title suggests, that advice isn’t always welcome, particularly when Marnie applies her fixing skills to her daughter Lori’s (Rose Byrne) life. A depressed TV showrunner, Lori’s in a seemingly permanent funk, one not helped by her on/off relationship with Jacob (Jason Ritter), an actor from which she can’t seem to move on. (Sarandon and Byrne are so good in their scenes with each other here, it would be a shame if they didn’t work together again.)
Then again, moving on’s not exactly something her family does well. Marnie’s relocated from the East Coast to L.A. and settled into a nice condo at the upscale mall The Grove, which she likens to living at Disneyland. She keeps busy, too, even when she’s not bugging Lori, going to the movies, getting her iPhone upgraded as she befriends Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael), a Genius Bar worker whom she reveres as a genius, and going to the baby showers of Lori’s friends even when Lori’s too depressed to show. But when a perfectly charming fellow Brooklynite (Michael McKean) suggests they get lunch, she backs away as if he’s threatening her. Her husband is dead, but that doesn’t mean she’s able to let him go.
While that set-up might sound a little formulaic, the execution is remarkably, almost miraculously fresh. In Sarandon’s hands, Marnie is a full-blooded creation. It’s as if, with Scafaria, she decided to explore the inner life of a character who might, in another movie, just show up to steal a scene or two before disappearing. She anchors the film, making Marnie a rich, moving character without sacrificing any of the laughs.
Marnie genuinely means well, even when her attention is unwelcome. And quite often it is welcome, as when she helps Freddy with school — by driving him there and studying along with him — or helping one of Lori’s friends (Cecily Strong) have the dream wedding she could otherwise never afford. Even if Lori doesn’t always appreciate her good intentions, others do, and Marnie forms several sweet connections over the course of the movie. Sarandon makes Marnie’s zeal and excess funny. She makes her pain seem real. And she inches her toward a fresh connection via a series of wonderful scenes with J.K. Simmons, playing a retired policeman fond of raising chickens increasingly fond of Marnie, as well.
Scafaria deftly keeps the film lively, cutting away from scenes before they grow stale, avoiding most clichés, and livening up the ones she does indulge. There’s a scene in which Marnie is compelled to consume a fistful of pot to avoid trouble with the cops and Scafaria makes the subsequent scene of her wandering around unexpectedly high both sweet and lyrical. It’s also wonderfully understated where other films might be tempted to go broad. Visiting the set of her daughter’s pilot, Marnie sees her own life playing out via characters obviously based on herself and her husband. Beyond complimenting the lead (Harry Hamlin), she doesn’t say that much about it. She just quietly comes to a moment of understanding of what it means. It’s a film that gets how much those moments matter. Sometimes it’s what’s not said before the “anyway” and the breathless conversation that follows that really matters.