THE MEDDLER  * * * 1 / 2

Starring Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, Cecily Strong, Jerrod Carmichael and J.K. Simmons. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria.

“Anyway,” begins every phone call from Marnie Minervini, as if resuming a monologue momentarily interrupted. Played by Susan Sarandon with guileless gusto and a honking Noo Yawk accent that grows on you, she spends a lot of time leaving rambling, comically detailed voicemail messages for her depressed daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). Recently widowed Marnie has just moved to Los Angeles, where her baby girl caught a big break for her TV writing career in the midst of a bad break-up with a movie-star boyfriend. Mom’s here to help, but she isn’t so great with boundaries, dropping by unannounced with bags full of salt bagels and oversharing at all the wrong moments.

This could be the stuff of a tacky CBS sitcom (the unfortunate title and dire advertising campaign do little to suggest otherwise) but what a surprise and delight to discover the melancholy register at which writer-director Lorene Scafaria has pitched The Meddler. The movie finds Marnie good-naturedly blundering her way into the middle of comic conceits that all turn out a bit smaller and slightly sadder than you’d guess from their set-ups. The Meddler feels toned down a few notches from your typical movie comedy. It feels like life.

No surprise then that Scafaria says she based it on her own family’s experiences after her father passed away. There’s a wonderful specificity to the situations, stray details so perfectly random you figure they must probably have happened. Marnie, now almost two years since the loss of her beloved Joe, was left with a ton of money and an emotional vacuum. All that nurturing energy has to go somewhere, and so she starts adopting strays – footing the bill for the elaborate lesbian wedding of one of her daughter’s not-so-close friends (Cecily Strong) and driving that nice young man from the Apple Store (Jerrod Carmichael) to and from his community college classes. She’s also caught the eye of a retired motorcycle cop (J.K. Simmons) who raises chickens that dance to Dolly Parton.

All these interactions end up somewhere gentler than expected. (Even the de rigueur old-folk-getting-stoned scene isn’t played for slapstick.) Scafaria has a smart way of cutting on her jokes so that they get bigger laughs via implication. Reveals like an overzealous TSA official or a soaking wet police officer are confined to the background here for brief ellipses, whereas they’d both probably spawn massive set-pieces in a more conventional picture.

Brett Pawlak’s cinematography glows so warmly the film appears lit from within, which is probably the best way to describe Susan Sarandon’s performance as well. Marnie Minervini could’ve easily been a hectoring yenta, but check out the wide-eyed curiosity and innate kindness Sarandon brings to the fore even when she’s being kind of a nag. She does this thing sometimes in a scene where behind her smile you can see her start thinking of Joe, and suddenly she’s present but also a thousand miles away. This is great screen acting, delicate and exquisitely measured.

In a terrific shot midway through the film, Marnie is sitting around a table with her brothers-in-law and a picture of Joe is crowding her over toward the right of the frame. It’s the perfect visual analogue for the loss that keeps throwing this character off-center. The Meddler doesn’t offer any pat resolutions or happily-ever-afters but we like spending time with these people, and at the end they seem a little better off than when we met them. Anyway.

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