Director: Lorene Scafaria
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Jerrod Carmichael, Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch, Michael McKean, Jason Ritter
MPAA Rating: (for brief drug content)
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 4/22/16 (limited); 4/29/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 29, 2016
As difficult to pin down as the process itself may be, there are still fairly standard stages of grieving. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria's The Meddler follows a character who appears to be trapped between stages—perhaps in limbo between denial and bargaining. That stage—the one between stages—is one that is often overlooked.
It's the place at which every grieving person ultimately arrives—somewhere between one of the stages and acceptance—because the whole "acceptance" thing is transitory. At any given moment, that "acceptance" can collapse. Take the way how, for most of the film, the protagonist states that her husband has been dead for a year. There comes a moment later in which she's forced to do the math. It has been more like two years, and the realization is crushing. It probably still feels like yesterday, too. The whole process of grieving is filled with contradictions, and that's also something that, at its core, Scafaria's screenplay fully comprehends.
The character is Marnie (Susan Sarandon), and she has moved from New York City, where she met and lived a good life with her late husband, to Los Angeles—into a nice apartment that's part of an outdoor shopping mall that looks, she says, like something out of an amusement park. She loves the place, but in acknowledging its phony appearance, she seems to be admitting that, somewhere inside, she knows it's all a façade. For her, though, it's better than reality. She is clinging to anything and everything that she can to keep that pesky thing from sneaking back into her life.
The move was also a not-at-all-sneaky way for Marnie to be closer to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), a writer who is trying to get a television pilot produced. Lori is having her own troubles—some of it to do with her father's death, some of it to do with an ex-boyfriend (Jason Ritter) whom she was dating when her father died.
It's all exacerbated by the fact that Marnie cannot go a day, half of one, or even just a few hours without calling her daughter. Marnie leaves lengthy, rambling voicemails about what's happening in her life (not much), what Lori should be doing with her own life (the opposite of what she actually is doing), and all of the big plans she has for the two of them (whether Lori wants those things or not). Marnie has plans for herself, such as volunteering at a local hospital, but something keeps her from following through on such things.
Whatever good she does, Marnie falls into by accident. Her circle of meddling expands.
A trip to the hospital gift shop while avoiding the volunteer office leads her to an elderly, ailing woman, whom she starts to visit regularly. She offers to drive Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael) to night classes, because she shops at the tech store where he works too much. He's having problems with his brother, and Marnie is more than happy to proffer advice—and happier that it's taken. She offers to pay for Lori's friend Jillian's (Cecily Strong) wedding, even though she doesn't know the friend's last name. She meets Zipper (J.K. Simmons) when she stumbles upon a movie shoot at which he's working security. He's clearly interested in her romantically, but she goes back and forth on the thought of following through on whatever feelings she might have for him.
Herein lies the film's trickiest contradiction, which Scafaria and Sarandon, whose performance effortlessly evolves from caricature to something much deeper, pull off with a great deal of empathy. Outwardly, Marnie is doing good things. She's helping people. She's using her late husband's money for things that will make others happy. She's keeping herself occupied. She's setting herself up for a change in her life.
Inwardly, though, Marnie's motives for her actions are unhealthy. The people she helps are more like replacements for the daughter she is pushing away by trying to stay close. A psychiatrist (Amy Landecker), whose presence in the film might serve as too much of a crutch to explicitly vocalize what Scafaria effectively portrays without the overt psychoanalysis, suggests that Marnie is blowing through her money to assuage some guilt about the way she obtained it. By the way, Marnie only sees the psychiatrist because the doctor treats Lori, and she wants to get some information about her daughter.
Most importantly, Marnie is only keeping herself distracted from the reality of her situation. She doesn't want to change. To change her life is to admit that her life has changed. She's stuck there—denying the fact of her loss and bargaining with anyone who will take her up on her offer for help, in order to keep her busy enough to forget, even if just for a moment.
There are a few hiccups that deter the film from its astute observations. Most of these are of the broadly comic variety, such as a scene in which Marnie eats an entire bag of marijuana and a strange subplot about a serial killer roaming the city that results in a cheap, out-of-left-field punch line. On the other hand, a scene on the set of Lori's show, which seems to be moving toward an obvious joke, takes an unexpected, sobering detour.
The diversions are not too distracting, though. For every easy joke, there are more scenes that cut to the heart of Marnie's pain, such as a reunion with her in-laws that results in a shot of her almost forced out of frame by the absence occupying the seat where her husband would be. The Meddler succeeds as a picture of the restraining effects of grief because Scafaria's intentions are pure and her approach is compassionate.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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