Susan Sarandon pours on the New Yawk accent in “The Meddler,” an ingratiating semi-autobiographical comedy by Lorene Scafaria. Correction: Sarandon is actually channeling the signature New Jersey drawl as Marnie Minervini, a recent widow who moves to Los Angeles to be close to her screenwriter daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne).
A compulsive advice-giver, dropper-by and barger-inner, Marnie isn’t a helicopter mom. She’s a Black Hawk mom, continually offering advice, help and guidance whether the recipient wants it or not.
For Lori, this means it’s time to “set some boundaries,” which prompts Marnie to visit her daughter’s therapist. When her daughter travels to New York for work, Marnie sets her sights on other potential beneficiaries, including a friend of Lori’s, played in an amusing turn by Cecily Strong, who never got the storybook wedding she wanted, and an Apple store clerk (Jerrod Carmichael) who is considering law school.
Just when you think Marnie’s grating, un-self-aware Lady Bountiful act couldn’t get more patronizing, “The Meddler” morphs into something tender, even poignant. What at first looks like a massive case of overcompensation and denial instead becomes a portrait of loneliness, unresolved grief and a courageously persistent generosity of spirit.
“The Meddler” is a movie of modest charms. It unfolds as a series of vignettes rather than a structural whole; it has a tendency to feel schematic and forced, such as in a bit involving the Apple store guy and one of his relatives that feels like a gratuitous non sequitur. Scafaria – who made her directorial debut in 2012 with “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” – doesn’t have the ease or rhythmic command of such peers as Noah Baumbach or Nicole Holofcener. But she does evoke a yielding, expansive tone that pleasantly ambushes viewers who reflexively expect the worst for the slightly out-of-it Marnie.
Once the accent settles in, Sarandon delivers a spirited, brash performance as a woman just coming into consciousness about how she’s really feeling (other than the “just great” she repeats like a chirpy mantra). And she’s ably supported by Byrne, who exudes flustered sympathy as a young woman sorting out her own jumble of mixed feelings, and J.K. Simmons, who channels his inner Sam Elliott to become a seductively persuasive love interest.
It’s been an interesting season for upper-middle-aged women in cinema: No sooner was Helen Mirren literally and figuratively commanding the military thriller “Eye In the Sky” than Sally Field made the best of a ditheringly thankless role in “Hello, My Name Is Doris.” Sarandon’s Marnie is a welcome addition to that field, a woman whose instincts may not be entirely foolproof but wind up creating their own kind of luck.
What seems cringe-worthy at first in “The Meddler” winds up as a warm, forgiving embrace – of the movie’s characters and audience, as well.
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Jerrod Carmichael
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Length: 100 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (brief drug content)
Raleigh: Grande. Durham: Southpoint. Chapel Hill: Chelsea, Silverspot.