Friday, May 20, 2016

The Meddler: Portrait of an endearing pest

The Meddler (2015) • View trailer 
4 stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for brief drug content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.20.16

Marnie Minervini can solve any problem. Any problem.

And for those foolish enough to insist they’ve haven’t any problems, Marnie will help diagnose some previously overlooked “issue,” and then suggest the best possible course of action. She’s never wrong, and she’s the first person to admit as much.

During a dinner already laden with emotional angst, Marnie (Susan Saranon, left) watches
warily after her daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), sees her ex enter the restaurant with his
new girlfriend.
In fairness, that opinion is shared by most folks on the receiving end of her largess — medical, spiritual or financial — who marvel at Marnie’s cheerful altruism, while assuming that she must be the world’s best, most caring mother.

Except that daughter Lori knows the truth, as do we: that Marnie is a nosy, relentlessly hovering, knows-no-boundaries nuisance who, despite her kind-hearted intentions, is a two-legged 24/7 nightmare.

She’s also the genius creation of actress-turned-writer/director Lorene Scafaria, who has concocted this character from the heart: from the complicated dynamic that resulted when, after her father died, her mother sold the family home in New Jersey and moved 3,000 miles to the West Coast, in order to be closer to her daughter.

“And,” Scafaria explains, in her film’s press notes, “I’ve been raising her in Los Angeles ever since.”

Granted, Scafaria has embellished a bit, but still: No mother could hope for a better, funnier, more even-handed portrait of a widow trying to work her way through grief, while blundering amid the walls freshly erected by a daughter struggling to process her frustration and sense of loss.

Nor could we, as viewers, request or expect anybody better than Susan Sarandon, when it came to depicting this character. Sarandon is a revelation, both on camera and while delivering Marnie’s stream-of-consciousness narration. I’d call the latter a clever means of illustrating just how exasperated Lori (Rose Byrne) gets, as the victim of her mother’s constant, intrusive nagging ... but the voice-overs are too hilarious to be viewed as irritating.

Mind you, it’s more accurate to call Sarandon’s delivery wincingly funny: As this film progresses, few things become scarier than watching Marnie plunge into a fresh crowd of strangers, knowing — with an odd blend of dread and amused anticipation — that she’s about to target fresh prey.

Even as we recognize and dread Marnie’s intrusive ways, we can’t help adoring her; Sarandon’s performance is richly nuanced and utterly delightful. Marnie’s words and actions always arise from the best intentions, and — as we soon realize — they’re also a means to avoid confronting the fact that she is absolutely, positively lost without the beloved husband who stood at her side, for so many years.

Besides, daughter Lori clearly needs her mother’s help; after all, the poor girl is a wreck.

(Which is also true.)

Although a successful writer for TV shows, Lori’s personal life is something of a mess, following an untidy breakup with Jacob (Jason Ritter), a successful actor. Trouble is, Jacob’s profession keeps him in close proximity, making his attachment to a new girlfriend a constant twist of the emotional knife already buried in Lori’s heart.

Marnie, newly arrived from New York, can’t wait to help. She also can’t wait to embrace this adventure known as Los Angeles, becoming a constant presence to everybody from the Apple store “genius” (Jerrod Carmichael, as Freddy) who helps solve every fresh problem with her new iPhone, to the patients at a nearby hospital where she volunteers.

And also to Lori’s friends, where Marnie thinks nothing of attending (for example) a baby shower as Lori’s “plus one” ... even though the “one” — Lori — can’t work up the enthusiasm to attend herself.

On top of which, Marnie has been left quite financially secure, so she thinks nothing of solving a potential problem by throwing money at it. Even if the potential recipient seems, well, uncomfortable about it.

When Lori lucks into a hot TV pilot shoot back in New York, she finally draws the line and demands that Marnie stay in Los Angeles, if only to take care of her two “grand-dogs.” Once on her own, Marnie becomes even more of a clinging vine to the chance acquaintances she has accumulated; she also catches the attention of a few eligible gentlemen.

The first is Mark (Michael McKean), encountered at a party; we don’t rate his chances very high. The other is Zipper (J.K. Simmons), an ex-cop who works as a security guard at film and TV shoots, and who Marnie meets when she accidentally finds herself scooped up to become an extra in some movie.

Zipper seems more promising, and not only because he raises chickens. He’s also played to teddy-bear perfection by J.K. Simmons, who could turn something as mundane as grocery shopping into an Academy Award-winning performance. (Imagine that bushy mustache twitching, as he tried to determine whether a 12-ounce can of chili is a better bargain than two 7-ounce cans; you just know we’d die laughing.)

I marvel at the delicacy and subtle nuances of both Sarandon’s performance and Scafaria’s script. Marnie is such a handful — God forbid she should live next door to us! — and yet she’s somebody with whom we immediately identify: a character created and performed with a level of warmth and emotional complexity that we rarely see on the big screen.

The role itself is a gift to Sarandon; her interpretation is a gift to us. Imagine: a second richly nuanced role for an “actress of a certain age,” coming only a month after Sally Field’s equally compelling work in Hello, My Name Is Doris. Will either of these actresses be remembered, in such modest films, when names are proposed for Oscar nominations?

Simmons is equally fine, giving Zipper the quiet intuition and perceptive skills that we’d expect from an ex-cop. He’s cautious around Marnie, sensing the repressed emotions that she’s not yet willing to share; he’s also content to wait. And you’ve gotta love the man’s dedication to his chickens; in a script laden with honest, sensitively amusing moments, nothing is funnier than Zipper’s discussion of what sort of music best encourages “his girls” to lay more eggs.

Byrne successfully navigates the intricacies of a role that dare not become unsympathetic. Lori is prone to self-pity and bursts of irritation, but Byrne is careful not to overplay the latter; Scafaria doesn’t want Lori to be viewed as a bully, if and when she’s able to stand up to her mother. The point is that both of these women are damaged, and they both need each other; they simply aren’t going about it the right way.

Carmichael is just right as Freddy: instinctively friendly, as befits his job, but also overwhelmed by Marnie’s bursts of unexpected generosity ... but not so overwhelmed that he doesn’t take advantage. (But not undo advantage, and that’s important.) That said, a sidebar issue concerning Freddy’s bad-seed brother seems out of place; it’s also a plot contrivance that Scafaria leaves unresolved. That’s disappointing, considering the care she takes with every other element of her script.

That aside, Scafaria’s film is a little treasure. Although focusing on two women, it’s far from being a “chick flick”; this story’s emotional truths are universal. We’ve all been wounded sparrows seeking answers and comfort.

Indie charmers such as The Meddler are why I love this job; it’s fun to discover them, and even more rewarding to share them.

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