I’m sure that someone has a mother like Marnie Minervini, Susan Sarandon’s character in The Meddler. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria does, for one, though I’m also sure that Marnie has the contrast turned all the way up from Scafaria’s actual mother to exaggerate the comedy. Maybe if I had a mother with no sense of boundaries like her the story would resonate more than it does.
But, as it is, I’m on the outside of this particular problem. My own mother raised us to be self-sufficient, so we wouldn’t have to depend on her hovering around all the time. Which is not to say that Lori (Rose Byrne) is helpless. Far from it; she owns her own house in Los Angeles, where she’s a television writer with a pilot in production, based on her younger life with her mother and recently-deceased father. And yet Marnie seems to have no independent existence of her own, and so she gets all up into Lori’s — and everyone else’s — business.
There’s a lot of “everyone else”, by the way. There’s the kid at the Apple store (Jerrod Carmichael), whom she nudges into going back to school. Then there’s Lori’s friend, Jillian (Cecily Strong), for whom Marnie serves at first as a guerrilla babysitter. But when Marnie learns that Jillian always wanted a big wedding, she immediately volunteers to foot the bill. This drags in all of Lori’s other friends (a severely underused bunch of talent, including Sarah Baker, Casey Wilson, and Lucy Punch).
Lori and Marnie each get obligatory love interests. Lori’s is her movie star ex-boyfriend (Jason Ritter), who she’s not really over. We spend little time on their relationship, though; it’s more about giving Marnie another thing to needle her daughter about. That is, when she’s not figuring out her feelings towards “Zipper” (J.K. Simmons, doing a fairly good impression of recent Sam Elliott rom-com roles). He, again, isn’t really explored much beyond giving Marnie more ways to tell everyone what they should do.
All of this is meant to show us that Marnie’s meddling comes, at its root, from a good place. And sure, she means well, but she’s still way out of line and the movie never really confronts her about it. Sure, she might say, “I know I’m overstepping my bounds,” but she does it in that conspiratorial way that says, “but I’m not really doing anything wrong here.”
And there are times she really is, like a visit to the hospital where she ducks into a patient’s room, sees a machine beeping in a way she thinks it shouldn’t, and goes to futz with the various tubes and wires herself. It’s a horrifying moment; I fully expected the patient to die as a result. But of course she was fine, because Marnie lives the charmed life of a white lady, rich off of her husband’s generous pension because she’s old enough to have come from a time that a union job could provide a single-earner middle-class household that sort of financial independence.
The movie is ultimately not just sympathetic to Marnie, but fully on her side. It’s not a problem that she butts into the lives of her family, friends, and complete strangers, because she always turns out to be right. And even if she isn’t, she has the resources not to face any consequences for her actions. Like when, distracted leaving another rambling voice-mail message, she rear-ends a parked car, she just pulls out the other car she’s got in storage and drives that one.
And in the one case when the tables are turned and Marnie’s in-laws are pressuring her to decide about what to do with her husband’s ashes — a situation that they have at least some reason to be concerned about — she responds by ignoring them and going her own way. And, again, she suffers no consequences for her unilateral decisions; again, the movie says she’s right.
It’s even more frustrating because she does end up in front of a therapist (Amy Landecker) at one point. Admittedly it’s because she’s trying to break doctor-patient confidentiality, but she does have to face at least one pointed question about her behavior. Then she clams up and never returns rather than allow the slightest hint of introspection to cloud her always-rightness. Yet again, the movie lets her off the hook.
For all the frustrations and dissatisfactions that I imagine mirror the real experience of having this sort of ever-present annoyance in one’s life, there are some sweet and charming moments here and there. Sarandon delivers a top-notch performance, albeit as a character who constantly set my teeth on edge. And as a movie coming out just before the beginning of May, there are worse options out there if you can’t get a reservation for Mother’s Day brunch at the last minute.
It’s certainly better than Garry Marshall’s latest dumpster fire, about which this is all I’m going to say.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.