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Susan Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini, who has just moved to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), a screenwriter currently working on a television pilot. It's coming up on the two-year anniversary of the death of Marnie's husband and Lori's father, and Lori is taking it extremely hard. Marnie's idea of a solution is to make herself completely, possibly overly available to Lori, popping up at her house with a sack of bagels on the heels of multiple voicemails, but Lori pushes her away, leaving for New York City to shoot the pilot episode of her TV show. With Lori away for work, Marnie searches for other outlets for her desire to help, including assisting Lori's friend Jillian (Cecily Strong) put together the dream wedding she missed out on when she got married, driving friendly Apple Store employee Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael) to night school, and even spending time with a retired cop, Zipper (J.K. Simmons), who guards movie sets during the day and plays Dolly Parton to his chickens at night.
Starting with Clerks in 1994, it seems like the modern low-budget independent film is frequently defined by semi-autobiographical stories, pulled from the lives of the filmmakers and shaped into fiction. In many cases, that instinct, even in its more earnest forms, can come off faintly narcissistic. The Meddler is interesting because Scafaria is intentionally writing a story told from the perspective of someone else in her life, and not necessarily someone who she was relating to in that moment. In that way, The Meddler is a sweet exercise in empathy, one that seeks to understand why one person's grief looks different than their own. Marnie may endeavor to make everyone else's life better, but doing so is also a bit of an escape that allows her to spend less time examining how she feels about her own without her husband in it. It's also refreshing that the movie generally avoids overwrought displays of emotion: the slow understanding that grows between Marnie and Lori is created through small moments, such as an incomplete sentence when Marnie confronts one of Lori's exes (Jason Ritter), or the look on Marnie's face sometimes when Lori rejects her support.
As a whole, it's better to consider The Meddler more of a drama than a comedy. Although there are funny moments in it, especially given the number of funny women who make up the supporting cast (Strong, Casey Wilson, Sarah Baker, Lucy Punch, Amy Landecker), most of the humor is knowing and warm as opposed to laugh-out-loud. An audience member going in with the wrong set of expectations may expect more elaborate outcomes from scenes where Marnie convinces Freddy to try and reconcile with his brother Fredo (also played by Carmichael), a sequence where Marnie visits Lori's set in New York, or a secret that one of Lori's on-set romances tells Marnie but not Lori. Even an extended sequence involving a pregnancy scare is not designed as comic antics but the set-up for one of the movie's most emotional scenes, one of the few which taps into Lori's deeper anguish about her father's death. The Meddler is not a heavy movie by any means, filled with joy and happiness, but the film's objective of navigating the complexity of grief means its comic tone is more subdued.
Across the board, the film is filled with good performances. Among the supporting cast, Carmichael and Strong are real stand-outs; Jillian's eventual nautical wedding (complete with Blues Traveler, cameoing as themselves) is surprisingly moving for a secondary thread about a supporting character. In both instances, Scafaria actually makes a case for Marnie's "meddling" being a positive, another instance of the writing taking an objective stance. Byrne is also good as Lori, although there is probably less of her character in the movie than might be expected. J.K. Simmons, so ruthless in Whiplash, is the polar opposite here, exuding a warmth and comfort that convinces one that someone like Marnie might be interested in him (as opposed to a different single man, played by Michael McKean, who pops up repeatedly as a clueless semi-creep). He's good enough that I didn't laugh at the notion that such a character would listen to Beyonce regularly. Of course, Sarandon is the heart of the movie, taking a character that could easily be a caricature and finding the truth in it without sanding away the quirks that make the character funny. There is an authenticity to her concern, even as it becomes overbearing, that Scafaria clearly loves: a perfect summation of the relationship between mother and daughter.
Even the very limited nuance of the theatrical poster art, which depicted a stern-looking Rose Byrne next to an excited Susan Sarandon against a dusky pink-and-purple backdrop and a hint of LA skyline, has been streamlined for the home video release, which ditches all but Byrne and Sarandon for plain old white. The more appropriate Sarandon-centric critical pull-quotes have been swapped for one that emphasizes the mother-daughter relationship, as well. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, The Meddler is one of the more impressive standard-def transfers I've seen in awhile. Although there is a degree of softness to the image, it always feels natural, in keeping with the overall intended appearance of the photography, which has a light, almost pastel quality to it in some scenes. Although that faint reduction in detail brings the Arri Alexa footage down from the extremely crisp clarity of digital to a more film-like appearance, close-ups are still impressive, and numerous dark and low-light scenes (particularly scenes in which Sarandon drives Jerrod Carmichael to night school) are heavy on shadow but free of artifacts. In terms of sound, there's not much going on aside from dialogue and the faint bit of music, which the surround track has no trouble rendering crisply and with the right energy. I'm also quite pleased that Sony's general mandate to cram on additional audio streams hasn't compromised the image, as an English Descriptive Audio Track, Parisian French, Portuguese, and Thai Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also included, as are English, traditional Chinese, French, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai subtitles, and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.
First up is an audio commentary by writer/director Lorene Scafaria and star Susan Sarandon. This is a relaxed track in which the two filmmakers reminisce about the shoot and get into a bit of detail as to how people got involved and some of the logistics of acquiring locations, negotiating for songs, shooting on the water, etc. Enjoyable, but more anecdotal, and there are gaps of silence that ring less of nothing to say and more of a legal department getting overzealous with the mute button.
Video extras kick off with an extremely fluffy gag reel (4:08). Next, "The Real Marnie" (12:08), a really sweet and even moving featurette which features writer/director Lorene Scafaria with her real mother, Gail, discussing the origins of the script, the interactions between Sarandon and Gail getting the character right (including snippets of a short Scafaria shot with her mother playing the character that matches the opening of the film). Finally, "The Making of The Meddler" (16:07) is a general making-of featurette, which may not tug the heartstrings as much as the previous featurette, but is still a cut above the usual EPK thanks to a laid-back atmosphere and Scafaria's infectious enthusiasm about her movie.
Trailers for The Bronze, Guernica, Hello, My Name is Doris, and Equity play before the main menu, and can be replayed under special features by clicking on "Previews." No trailer for The Meddler is included.
As long as viewers go in with the right expectations, The Meddler should easily win them over. It's not a broad mother-daughter comedy, but a more complicated story about grief and family, and a rewarding one, featuring an atmosphere of positivity amid darker elements, and a host of fantastic performances. Sony's DVD is pretty good too, with strong A/V and a decent bunch of extras (although HD lovers might want to note that an Amazon BD-R edition also exists). Highly recommended.
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