This week, we gave our group of interns a challenge: pick a movie from the past decade that didn’t seem like it was for you, so you didn’t see it. Watch that movie and review it. You can find all of their reviews on the Projects page.
When was the last time you called your mother? In Lorene Scafaria’s 2015 film The Meddler, newly-widowed Marnie (Susan Sarandon) moves from New York to LA to be with her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), a television writer and director. As the title would suggest, Marnie meddles! She forces herself into her daughter’s life with constant drop-bys, phone calls, and outrageously invasive offers. Though Marnie is dizzying, she has the best intentions at the heart of her overbearing nature. The Meddler is sincere and low-stakes, but it cashes in on kid guilt. There’s a good chance you’ll want to text your mom after it’s over.
The story of The Meddler is apparently very autobiographical. After the death of the filmmaker’s father, Scafaria’s mother moved from the East Coast to California to be near her daughter. Events are certainly dramatized and new ideas were created (JK Simmons as Marnie’s love interest is an invention), but the empathy with which Scafaria treats her characters feels very personal. Scafaria gets under the skin of these women, who could very easily have fallen into stock stereotypes.
Marnie can be caustic and domineering, and — as most of the spoken dialogue in the film occurs in her voicemails to Lori — exhaustingly long-winded. These calls are farcical. Marnie spends whole car rides to The Grove rattling on about stuff that goes in one ear and out the other. The content of the calls doesn’t stick, but it’s still a delight just to listen to Sarandon’s aggro New York accent. Though it’s smothering, much of this helicoptering is Marnie projecting her own mourning onto Lori. Sarandon deftly creates physical space between herself and anyone who asks about her late husband, even her own daughter.
But in the wake of Lori’s break-up with her actor boyfriend, she seems to need Marnie more than she lets on. Lori has been in free-fall since her father’s death and tends to get understandably exasperated over Marnie’s needling. Their dynamic is equal parts warmth and friction. The actresses play this with a good measure of animosity, and it’s endearing to watch. Their relationship is familiar, which allows the film to operate on a deeper level than your average family drama.
Marnie is entertaining, but when she oversteps it feels as though the second-hand embarrassment could kill you. We spend so much time with the duo that the awkward bits only hurt more — in a satisfying way, though, like cracking your knuckles. Even for those scenes that now make me cringe just thinking about them, Scafaria’s ability to show the good with the bad tempers all sins. For every time Marnie embarrasses herself or her daughter, there’s a moment when her desperate compulsion to help brings so much cathartic good that it makes it all worthwhile.
You can identify this quality in Scafaria’s 2019 hit Hustlers as well. The filmmaker never tips the scale too far in one direction or passes too much judgment on her characters. They are never sanctified beyond reason but are treated with respect and empathy. I don’t think that only women can write great female characters, but Scafaria manages to create nuanced shading. If anything, her films are an argument for expanding the canon to include more writers with strengths catering to characters that tend to be written as cliches, as is often the case with the finagling Italian-American mother.
Scafaria leans into the character, making Marnie a maternal bloodhound. She can sniff out when somebody needs help, whether that be in a hospital, in an Apple Store, or at a baby shower. The audience needs to love watching Marnie stick her nose into everyone’s business because otherwise there would be no story here. There’s a level of it that’s perverse — we watch with unbridled curiosity as Marnie becomes more and more invasive.
Most of the film is built around Marnie walking into a room and inserting herself into a situation, but these events don’t come off as forced as you’d expect. The point of Sarandon’s character is that she can’t help but squeeze her way into everything. This type of pushy plotting is an important part of Marnie’s characterization, so nothing seems overly contrived. It’s kind of a brilliant storytelling technique.
The stylistic touches Scafaria brings also elevate The Meddler beyond a perfunctory-looking comedy. She holds on shots and lets you take in each animal-print blouse that Marnie dons and hovers the camera on Lori just enough to feel like you’re falling over the edge with her. While they’re not exactly experimental, these elements add aesthetic oomph to a sincere and simple story.
Scafaria also uses music for great dramatic resonance, to illustrate a character’s interior life and pinpoint moments of growth. Marnie constantly listens to Beyoncé’s “I Was Here” (penned by Diane Warren no less). And when we meet Zipper (Simmons), a retired cop with a sensational push-broom mustache, he’s revealed to love Dolly Parton. It’s weird and unsubtle, but we roll with it, perhaps because Simmons is so charming.
These music cues build to an absolutely glorious “Angel of the Morning” needle-drop, which is objectively insane but works in the film marvelously. Scafaria has thoughtfully instructed us to accept such a swing (it’s not unlike the now-iconic Usher cameo scene in Hustlers; each film is realistic and authentic but escalates to moments of pure cathartic fantasy). There is nowhere you’d rather be than on the back of a Harley with Simmons and that ‘stache of his.
It’s so exciting to have a talent like Scafaria running around, herself meddling in Hollywood’s beeswax and hustling like there’s no tomorrow. It will be fantastic to see Scafaria have a long and varied career, however I can’t help but hope she revisits this terrain. The Meddler is small but mighty, and an exciting glimpse of what’s to come.