The first line of dialogue in “The Meddler” is “Anyway.” It’s the title character speaking, Marnie (Susan Sarandon), a recently widowed Mom from New Jersey with nothing to do with her time now but leave long, discursive voice mails for her daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). Well-meaning, generous, and interested in everyone she meets, Marnie is the kind of lovably garrulous person who starts conversations with “anyway,” as if she’s been talking to you forever and was merely distracted, momentarily, by something else.
This is a big, happy smile of a movie, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) with autobiographical affection and a wonderful sense of humor. Though the title and scenario may suggest a broad comedy about a cartoonishly overbearing mother, it’s actually a tender, sympathetic portrait. To the extent that the film reflects Scafaria’s own life (like Lori, she’s a New Jersey native whose father was an Italian immigrant), it suggests she loves her mom, lengthy voice mails and all.
A year or so after her husband’s death, Marnie has followed her daughter out to Los Angeles. Lori is here to become a television writer; Marnie is here because she has no family back East beside in-laws, her husband left her plenty of money, and she might as well live near her daughter. Besides, as she says more than once, Southern California is “like living on Main Street in Disneyland!”
This proximity means not just multiple pointless phone calls from a worrying mother (“Did you get my message about the serial killer?”), but actual drop-in visits, too. Lori, busy with work and nursing her wounds after being dumped by a TV star (Jason Ritter), doesn’t have the time or patience for it. Mom needs a hobby. Or a boyfriend. Or both.
Potential suitors include a fellow Brooklynite (Michael McKean) and a retired cop named Zipper (J.K. Simmons, doing a Sam Elliott impersonation), both respectful and age-appropriate. But Marnie — and this is the key to the whole thing — hasn’t fully processed her husband’s death. The headstone that she’s been discussing with her husband’s rowdy Italian brothers hasn’t been ordered yet, nor have his ashes been distributed. Marnie avoids anything that hints of moving on, and instead throws herself into Lori’s life and the lives of the people around her.
She helps Lori’s lesbian friend, Jillian (Cecily Strong), plan and pay for her wedding, despite hardly knowing her. She encourages Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael), the nice young man who works at the Apple Store, to go to community college, and gives him a ride to class when he takes her advice. Meanwhile, she meets with a therapist (whose comments are a little on-the-nose) … mostly to talk about Lori, not herself.
Sarandon and Byrne make for a relatable mother-daughter combo, perfectly capturing the dynamic between a parent and an adult child, fraught with impatience and exhaustion but ultimately full of love. The supporting cast is good too, but it’s really Marnie’s journey we’re following, and Sarandon is so endearingly funny and authentic that only an ardent mother-hater could fail to be moved by her. This should have been the year’s big Mother’s Day film, and “Mother’s Day” should have been incinerated.
B+ (1 hr., 40 min.; )