Lorene Scafaria’s The Meddler is proof that any genre of film, no matter how cliche or obvious it may seem, can still have tremendous power if done right. One of the most eye-rolling subgenres of the last twenty years has been that of “older people doing goofy things.” In it, we get men and women, usually aged 60-80, refusing to act their age. They’ll drive awesome cars, dress inappropriately, or swear like sailors. It’s not at all uncommon for these characters to eventually smoke weed, with allegedly hilarious results. Most of these films aren’t merely bad, but they usually star respectable actors that have been relegated to largely supporting roles as they’ve gotten older, and can come off as a vanity project. Most of the time, these films are unwatchable, but The Meddler is not only effective, it is often a very lovely film.
The story is about a New York widow (Susan Sarandon) who moves to Los Angeles to be with her daughter (Rose Byrne). Once she arrives, however, she soon finds that she has very little to do, so she just sort of floats along, doing whatever sounds interesting and trying desperately to forget how lonely she is. In the process, she finds herself in a romantic relationship with a retired cop (J.K. Simmons), which forces her to deal with her grief head-on for the first time.
While the film is written and paced well, it lives and dies by its performances. Each actor needs to walk a balance between comedy and drama, while keeping their character firmly rooted in reality. With dependable performers like J.K. Simmons and Rose Byrne in supporting roles, the believability of the story is never in question. Byrne imbues her character with a frantic energy, which undoubtedly masks a deep well of insecurity. Simmons plays a man whose quiet life is pleasant enough, but is marked with a slight twinge of sadness. These are fully fleshed out characters that each feel like they could have movies all their own; and those movies would probably be pretty good.
But the real heart of the film is Susan Sarandon. While Sarandon has always been a dependable dramatic actress, I never thought of her as having near-perfect comedic timing. But as Marnie, the lonely and eccentric widow, she takes what in many ways is a caricature of a controlling mother and finds all kinds of emotional nooks and crannies to explore, making the comedy within the character feel organic and the drama heartbreaking. There are moments when Marnie is overbearing, and Sarandon is not afraid to play her as such. But, even then, the character has been so well-crafted that we soon realize that the moments in which she is at her most annoying are often when she feels the saddest and is simply looking for some kind of human connection. It is a marvelous, lived-in performance that is a nice reminder of what a gem Susan Sarandon really is.
But to praise Sarandon alone would be a disservice to Lorene Scafaria’s nuanced script. While there are moments of broad comedy that don’t always land, Scafaria is so in tune with her characters that those moments don’t last very long. Scafaria has obvious affection for the Marnie character, and just wants the best for her. She treats Marnie as a grieving friend, whom she is willing to give plenty of space to, but ultimately just wants her to be happy. There are very few false steps in this film, which is a very rare thing for the subgenre that it’s a part of. Few things are forced; everything seems to flow naturally out of these characters.
It’s a rare thing to find a film as effortlessly compelling as The Meddler. Rarer still to find one that has so many opportunities to get things horribly wrong, but mostly stays within the confines of emotional and artistic feasibility. These are characters that I enjoyed spending time with. It is a very satisfying film, and one that I highly recommend.