The Meddler isn’t so much a bad movie as a lighter-than-air, instantly forgettable one. It tells a story that’s essentially a cliché stretched to feature length. Anyone who saw writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s 2012 big-screen debut, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, will feel she has reneged on her early promise. Most egregiously, The Meddler wastes the wit and warmth of Susan Sarandon, one of the entertainment world’s true treasures.
The plot has recently widowed Marnie Minervini (Sarandon) moving from the East Coast to LA to be nearer to her daughter. Lori, a struggling TV writer, is played by Rose Byrne. Her wit and warmth are wasted, as well, but she gets so little screen time that it’s not as noticeable. The fact that these characters are based on the filmmaker and her own mother unfortunately does nothing to make them the slightest bit intriguing, or even believable.
This is the kind of movie that is intended to explore a certain kind of contemporary psychology or personality type, when in reality it’s nothing more than a series of trite observations and uninspired gags. The portrait of a woman who fills the hole in her life with random acts of generosity, The Meddler spends less time examining Marnie’s motives than it does putting her in situations that almost make her into a cartoon.
Take her iPhone. Please. One of the first things the transplanted sixtysomething does when she arrives on the West Coast is get dazzled by an Apple store. She purchases a device that enables her to inundate her daughter with voicemails. Even worse, Marnie brandishes the phone as a badge of hipness. She comes to equate it with youthfulness and relevance, asking people she meets whether they own one in the way real people might inquire about someone’s age, job or family.
Before long, Lori announces it’s time to set boundaries. (Mom has barged into her apartment unannounced, played matchmaker and checked her search history one too many times.) The film’s core joke is that Marnie, whose late husband left her financially fixed for life, doesn’t change her smotherly ways after that. She simply directs her maternal energies toward anyone in her path.
Marnie befriends — for all practical purposes, adopts — the Apple store clerk who sold her the phone, played by comic Jerrod Carmichael. She encourages him to better himself by going to night school and, upon learning he lacks transportation, offers to drive him. She volunteers at a hospital and fills an elderly woman’s room with presents. Cecily Strong costars as one of Lori’s friends, a lesbian who can’t afford her dream wedding. Marnie has known her for maybe five minutes before she offers to foot the bill, a mere $15,000.
All of which is terribly generous, but not terribly entertaining. Scafaria’s dialogue is dull when it’s not ditzy, and attempts at physical comedy fail spectacularly. Among the silliest and most tone deaf is a scene in which Michael McKean leans in for a kiss after a pleasant evening with Marnie and winds up with her thumbs jammed in his eye sockets — a self-defense move she learned earlier in the movie.
Did I mention that Sarandon’s Brooklyn accent is distracting, to put it kindly? And that J.K. Simmons (whom Marnie doesn’t assault) seems to be doing a Sam Elliott impression for some reason? The movie’s a ho-hum, sitcommy affair in which its star muddles far more than she meddles.
It’s often said that Hollywood creates too few roles for women. I think anyone who sees The Meddler will agree it’s created at least one too many.