In Lorene Scafaria's The Meddler, Susan Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini, a recent widow who moves from the East Coast to Los Angeles to "be near" (read, boss around) her daughter Lori (a very good, if underused Rose Byrne), a depressed screenwriter who's just broken up with her boyfriend. We meet Marnie lying in bed gazing up at the ceiling, and that's more or less the last wordless time we spend with her.
Amiable and chatty (her voiceover, a one-way running memo to Lori, typically begins with "Anyway..."), Marnie has little to do in her new home, and Lori is less than receptive to input. When her daughter escapes to New York for a few weeks' work, Marnie busies herself finding substitutes to whom she can offer unsolicited aid and advice. She gloms onto Lori's friends bearing disproportionate gifts; packs her bemused Apple guy (Jerrod Carmichael) off to college; plans a lesbian wedding for a motherless bride (Cecily Strong); visits a hospitalized older woman she doesn't know. She also throws money around for all the world as if she were not a modestly comfortable widow from suburban New Jersey. Marnie doesn't want to know how lonely she is. So she follows Lori to New York, there to place her stamp on a TV-movie set where a tale suspiciously like her own family's progresses as best it can under her superfluous wing.
Movie mothers get a raw deal: They're too cold or too hot, too remote or too engaged, too young or too old, monsters or, at best, figures of fun. The busybody mom in particular has, with wearying frequency, become a sitting target for cheap cracks at the expense of the lonely empty-nester. Perhaps because The Meddler was made by a woman director and based on a testing encounter with a mother she clearly loves, Scafaria's comedy of maternal manners dances affectionately, if not altogether nimbly, around this cliff edge without falling over.
The Meddler isn't great filmmaking. It's baggy and repetitive, and sometimes it just drifts along on a repeat cycle of Marnie's desperate efforts to minister to everyone but herself. The dialogue is relentlessly chipper, and the supporting players -- arm-waving Italian in-laws, a pregnant girlfriend in ditsy top gear (though I do love Lucy Punch), an obligatory love interest played with more diligence than energy by J.K. Simmons in an improbable handlebar mustache -- often feel like situation comedy types. The takeaway won't shock you either: Marnie and Lori will wake up to the source of their shared grief and their mutual need and all the redemptive stuff that comes with this territory.
And yet, The Meddler is warm and funny and astutely observant of the way so many mothers and daughters push and pull at each other and drive each other crazy, and never let go. And though Sarandon, a sixtysomething glamour puss at once raffish and maternal in a wavy red shag and Bette Davis eyes, might easily have sucked up all the air in the room, she goes a different route. She dials down the slapstick around her and brings a quiet grace to a woman who's all at sea but hangs onto what she does best — figuring out what other people need and helping them get there.
The great thing about The Meddler is that it doesn't force Marnie to change all that much. She comes to see that she needs to take care of herself as well as others. Likewise, Lori comes to accept the gift that's been in front of her nose all along, and to accept that what's most annoying (to her, if not to her friends) about her mother is also what's finest about her. The world could use a few more meddlers like Marnie, one of a vast army of maternal do-gooders who go unsung or reviled at the movies and in life. The Meddler, for once, doffs its cap to busybody moms. Because they are the best kind, and as my own beloved, clucking mother used to say, better too much than too little. So off you go and wear a woolly, it's cold outside.