'The Meddler': TIFF Review

A sincere but sitcomish overbearing-mom com.

Susan Sarandon stars as a widow who moves to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter, played by Rose Byrne, in Lorene Scafaria's film.

In the annals of shamelessly invasive movie mothers, The Meddler’s Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) ranks up there. Her overstepping ranges from benign (leaving her 30-ish daughter Lori endless voicemail messages) to inappropriate (checking Lori’s Internet browser history) to verging-on-traitorous (informing Lori’s ex that she’s still in love with him) — but she does it all with the biggest of hearts and best of intentions. Not even Lori (Rose Byrne) ever seems to stay angry.

Writer-director Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) has based her film on experiences with her own mom, and it may indeed wring laughs, winces and perhaps a few tears from viewers who have — or are — doting mothers themselves. But just as many will wish The Meddler were more biting, more imaginative, riskier or rowdier. For all its relatability, the movie is safe and sitcomishly amusing rather than sharply funny, hitting the same genial notes over and over instead of building real comic momentum.

Of course, The Meddler is above all a showcase for Sarandon, who, with a Brooklyn accent as broad and uneven as the movie itself, is a pleasure to watch — even if she never seems quite right for the role (she’s far too cool and gorgeous to be anyone’s clingy, embarrassing mom). Sony Pictures Classics plans to release the film in 2016 and likely will market it as a crowd-pleaser ideal for mother-daughter movie dates.

Scafaria opens with Marnie, newly transplanted to Los Angeles in the wake of her husband’s death, marveling via voiceover at all the City of Angels has to offer. The light! The space! The Grove! (For the uninitiated, that’s an outdoor mall that Marnie, not inaccurately, compares to Disneyland’s Main Street.)

When she’s not actually with daughter Lori, Marnie’s calling to give live updates of her comings, goings and everything in-between. "Did I tell you about this new Beyonce song?" she asks at one point, proceeding to hold the phone up to the car radio so Lori can hear.

Marnie’s other hobbies include trying to recruit dates for her daughter, who recently has been dumped by her actor boyfriend (Jason Ritter), and doling out heaps of unsolicited advice (and not just to Lori — one scene finds her cheerfully dispensing reproductive tips to women at a baby shower).

When Lori, a screenwriter, leaves for a shoot in New York, she delivers the blow every over-involved parent dreads: "I think it’s time we set some boundaries." So Marnie takes her meddling skills elsewhere, putting them to more transparently altruistic use: she helps a young Apple Store employee (Jerrod Carmichael) study for his exams, fills an old woman’s hospital room with gifts and plans a big fat lesbian wedding for one of Lori’s friends (Cecily Strong). Marnie also strikes up a romance with a sweet retired cop (J.K. Simmons), whom she meets cute when she inadvertently wanders onto a movie set.

Scafaria wrote the more self-consciously quirky Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and here her dialogue ranges from sharp (when Marnie frets that a serial killer is targeting young women, Lori retorts, "Then we’re both safe") to flat, mostly falling somewhere in-between. And while her direction is fluid, she doesn’t yet know how to shape a scene or squeeze maximum comic juice out of her ripest ideas. A potentially rich running gag revolving around the fact that Marnie is seeing Lori’s therapist (Amy Landecker) never really goes anywhere, and a promising moment in which Lori turns the tables on Marnie, badgering her about her "new friend," is cut short almost as soon as it begins. Scafaria is going for twinges of recognition rather than big payoffs or belly laughs, but one sometimes has the feeling she’s holding back — or not trying hard enough to put an original spin on familiar figures and material.

There’s not much to Byrne’s role but pouting and complaining, which she does with her customary skill. This is Sarandon’s show, and the actress succeeds in making Marnie a bit more than a caricature, excelling in the film’s less chatty, more dramatic scenes (she even gets a few chances to let her eyes well up with emotion, which she does better than pretty much any actor out there).

DP Brett Pawlak (We Are Your Friends) makes the light-filled SoCal locales, from Topanga Canyon to Malibu, look casually luscious. The Meddler’s setting and story are reminiscent of another recent overbearing-mom-com, Helen Hunt’s Ride, a film that, while just as flawed, felt somehow fresher and more emotionally immediate than this autobiographical effort.

Scafaria has made a deeply personal, unquestionably sincere movie — which, alas, isn’t exactly the same as a very good one.

Production companies: Anonymous Content

Writer-director: Lorene Scafaria

Cast: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Jason Ritter, Jerrod Carmichael, Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch, Casey Wilson, Harry Hamlin

Producer: Joy Gorman Wettels

Executive producers: Paul Green, Steve Golin, Shea Kammer, Susan Sarandon

Director of photography: Brett Pawlak

Editor: Kayla M. Emter

Music: Jonathan Sadoff

Production designer: Chris L. Spellman

Set designer: Karuna Karmarkar

Costume designer: Annie Bloom

Casting: Nicole Abellera, Jeanne McCarthy, Jeff Olan

100 minutes