Sometimes you can instantly tell in the very first second of a performance that an actor has been perfectly cast. Think Daniel Day Lewis’ glare in There Will Be Blood, Jeff Bridges’ saunter in The Big Lebowski, or Gloria Swanson’s opening demand in Sunset Boulevard.
Obviously, it’s unlikely that Susan Sarandon’s performance as the titular Meddler in Lorene Scafaria’s charming but meandering dramedy will be etched into cinematic folklore like the above, but it doesn’t diminish just how utterly pitch perfect she is throughout. The Meddler opens with Susan Sarandon’s Marnie Minervini leaving a voicemail for her daughter Lori Minervini (Rose Byrne), and just with her opening utterance of, “Anyway,” which is then quickly followed by a long, detailed, but excited reliving of her mundane day, you’re immediately entranced and know that she is on point.
It’s been a year since Marnie’s husband and Lori’s father has died. But rather than wallowing in grief, Marnie decides to move across the United States, from the East Coast to Los Angeles, to be closer to her screenwriting daughter. As the title suggests, she soon starts meddling in Lori’s affairs, constantly looking to bring her closer with her friends and pair her back with her former beau.
But Lori is still grieving the death of her father, and is annoyed by her mother’s various and constant interferences as she plunges head first into her work. Marnie decides to grieve in a different way, though, embracing her new found wealth and assisting everyone and anyone around her.
The Meddler’s exploration of these sub-plots sees it drift away from what originally made it so compelling. The dynamic between Susan Sarandon’s infectiously attentive and loving Marnie and Rose Byrne’s understandably distant Lori is both hilarious and touching, while it’s also presented in dramatically nuanced style.
But when Lori is forced to travel to New York for several weeks, Rose Byne suddenly exits the film for a prolonged period. Susan Sarandon’s performance remains resplendent, but The Meddler doesn’t give her anyone to emphatically bounce off of. Instead she generously assists Cecily Strong’s Jillian with her wedding, drives Jerrod Carmichael’s Freddy to and from night class, rejects the advances of Michael McKean’s Mark, and starts volunteering for a hospital.
It’s all a little aimless, until she meets J.K. Simmons’ Zipper. As you’d expect, J.K. Simmons and Susan Sarandon are irresistible together, creating a romantic but realistic patter and relationship. But it’s only once Rose Byrne returns to the fray that The Meddler picks up the energy that rhythm that had deserted it through the middle.
Even this brief detour into mediocrity isn’t enough to stop The Meddler from resonating, though. Not just through its humor, but also in how touching it is in its exploration of grief and the ways that we try to make a connection with others. Bar its erratic middle act, Lorene Scafaria’s script and direction on The Meddler proves that she’s one of the most intriguing storytellers working in American independent cinema, as she’s able to analyze the drab and macabre without forgoing entertainment and laughs or being tediously sentimental.
But it’s Susan Sarandon who is the real shining light of The Meddler. Even as she is dragged through a variety of scenarios that don’t quite work she keeps it afloat with her contagiously uplifting but disconcerting energy. It really is one of the best performances of the year, and for that alone The Meddler is well worth watching. Especially since, once the credits roll, all you’ll want to do is call your own mother.