We gave it a B
In the pantheon of overbearing movie moms, Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) really isn’t that bad; she’s not screeching about wire hangers or grooming murderous Manchurian candidates; no one wants to throw Marnie from the train. She’s just a lonely, freshly widowed woman who follows her screenwriter daughter Lori (Rose Byrne) out to Los Angeles and finds that’s there isn’t much there to fill her to time beyond solo afternoons at the movies, daily trips to the Grove and the Apple store (she spends more time at the Genius Bar than most alcoholics spend in actual bars), and long aimless drives around the city, all of which she details in breezily meandering messages that pile up unchecked in Lori’s voicemail.
Stymied by her daughter’s resistance to 24/7 togetherness—Lori mostly just wants to be left alone to finish her TV pilot and pine quietly over a flaky actor ex (Jason Ritter)—Marnie decides to turn her the high-beam of her bottomless TLC toward other targets. Soon, she’s ferrying a young Apple employee (Jerrod Carmichael) back and forth to the night classes she’s encouraged him to take; planning the lesbian maritime wedding of Lori’s friend Jillian’s (Cecily Strong) dreams; and even spontaneously becoming an extra after wandering onto a film set. That’s where she meets Zipper (J.K. Simmons), a twinkly-eyed ex-cop working part-time set security who is immediately taken with Marnie’s daffy charm (and somehow fails to notice that she is epically, accidentally stoned for the full duration of their first date). Simmons is totally delightful in the role, though it helps that he’s playing the sort of Centrum Silver dreamboat only Hollywood could conjure: A Harley-riding tough guy with a sagebrush mustache and a heart of gold who keeps a coop full of chickens in his Topanga Canyon yard that he serenades with vintage Dolly Parton songs.
It’s so rare to see a major studio release centered on a woman over 60—or at least one without a Dame before her first name or a Streep after it—that, like last year’s Grandma, it’s tempting to want to celebrate The Meddler just for putting someone real and wrinkled (albeit still movie-star beautiful) onscreen without excuse or apology. Though the 36-year-old Byrne has equal billing on the poster, she isn’t given much to do beyond play 50 shades of exasperation, and most of the supporting roles—from young comedic stars Carmichael and Strong to vets like Michael McKean and Transparent’s Amy Landecker—are essentially cameos, so the movie really does hang on Sarandon. Her character, reportedly based on writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s own mother, isn’t drawn with any particular depth or nuance (and the broad New Yawk accent Sarandon tries on is about as authentically Brooklyn as a Sara Lee bagel). But when the script isn’t skimming along on sitcom-mom clichés, there’s something tenderly affecting in her saucer-eyed vulnerability and tentative steps towards independence: Not as a mother or a meddler—just a work in progress, like everyone else. B