September 14, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Review: “The Meddler”


Lorene Scafaria’s THE MEDDLER spins its way past so many potential crash sites that it’s practically an example of cinematic stunt-driving.  The premise itself is something out of a thousand terrible sitcoms:  the widowed mom of the title, Marnie (Susan Sarandon), is so desperate to micro-manage her daughter’s life that she moves from New York to Los Angeles for the purpose, suffocating her child under nonstop (and usually tone-deaf) calls, texts, visits and advice.  Add to this the fact that the movie barely even pretends not to be autobiographical–the TV-writing daughter (Rose Byrne) is named “Lori” instead of “Lorene,” and that’s about as far as the pretext goes.  As a final portent of disaster, Scafaria’s first stint as directing was the apocalyptic (in more ways than one) comedy Seeking A Friend For the End of the World.

And yet The Meddler is mostly charming, almost certain to be the next success in the fertile subgenre of Elderly Dramedy that this year alone has given us Grandma, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Learning To Drive, I’ll See You In My Dreams, A Walk In the Woods, and the more purely dramatic Woman In Gold–every one of them at least a modest hit.  Before flopping with Seeking a Friend, Scafaria managed a similar alchemy with her script for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, a romance revolving around a conceit that should have been endlessly precious and yet clicked.  (In a film festival coincidence, Freeheld, from Nick and Norah’s director Peter Sollett, premiered in Toronto almost at the same time as The Meddler.)  Her characters do silly, annoying, even self-destructive things, but not just as a vehicle for contrived laughs.  Their actions are driven by internal logic and genuine emotion even at their worst.

In the case of The Meddler, of course, Scafaria is lucky to have Sarandon behind her wheel.  Even laden with a Noo Yawk accent as thick as a schmear of cream cheese on a Zabar’s bagel, Sarandon’s Marnie makes sense.  There’s a sadness behind her nonstop gaiety, and an anxiety underlying her determination to help even strangers, like Lori’s lesbian friend (Cecily Strong) and the tech guy at the Apple Store at the Grove (Jerrod Carmichael)–and when Marnie oversteps her boundaries once again by taking sessions with her daughter’s own therapist (Amy Landecker), the doctor sees as much, much to Marnie’s discomfort.  The mother-daughter relationship makes sense, too.  Marnie drives Lori crazy, and for good reason, even causing her to stay incommunicado for weeks just so she can get some work done.  But when she’s in crisis, her mother is the one she calls.  (A sequence involving a potential pregnancy is a delight.)

The Meddler really comes to life in a section that amounts to a geriatic mini-version of Nick and Norah, a long woozy night Marnie spends with an ex-cop who goes by the name Zipper (J.K. Simmons, channeling his inner Sam Elliott).  Sarandon and Simmons are delicious together, and that stretch of story greatly expands our view of Marnie opening the way for the film’s final act.

Not all of The Meddler works, especially–perhaps oddly, perhaps not–the portions that put Lori closer to center.  (A subplot about her attachment to an ex-boyfriend played by Jason Ritter doesn’t go anywhere interesting.)  There are times when Scafaria, who wrote for last season’s Ben & Kate, uses her sitcom instincts instead of her screenwriting tools.  Mostly, though, the movie is smarter, funnier and more touching than you expect, a goodhearted surprise.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."