This year Mother’s Day brought not only Garry Marshall’s atrocious ensemble dramedy titled after it, but this Susan Sarandon vehicle, in which she plays—rather over-the-top—a good-hearted widow, still feeling the loss of her beloved husband Joseph, who not only hovers uncomfortably over her unmarried thirty-something daughter but intervenes in the lives of anyone else she happens upon who might, in her opinion, benefit from her advice. Never fear, however; though Marnie Minervini is an endlessly intrusive person, her meddling ultimately proves to be beneficial, and all her targets end up appreciating her efforts. In this way writer-director Lorene Scafaria turns what could have been a sharply comic portrait of an inveterate buttinsky into a fatuously bland feature-length sitcom.
Marnie first appears as a transplant from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, where she’s moved to be closer to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne, underused), a television writer. While marveling at the city, she bombards Lori, who’s still reeling from a breakup with her boyfriend, a successful actor (Jason Ritter), with phone calls and unannounced visits. Lori’s frustrated with Marnie’s constant badgering, and especially with her insistence that she shouldn’t give up on her erstwhile romance, so she’s glad to announce that she’s going off to New York to work on a TV pilot.
What’s Marnie to do on her own? The answer is obvious: find other people to help. She befriends Frank (Jerrod Carmichael), a worker at an Apple customer service desk, whom she not only encourages to go back to school but offers to drive to his classes. She makes plans to fund the dream wedding of a one of Lori’s friends (Cecily Strong) aboard a cruise ship—a lesbian ceremony to boot, demonstrating that despite her working-class roots she’s no bigot. And she accidentally stumbles into a relationship of her own with a retired cop (J.K. Simmons, who seems to be trying to channel Sam Elliott here)—a guy who persuades her to ride along on his Harley and not only raises chickens but shares the fresh eggs with her!
Despite Lori’s aversion to spending too much time with her mother, Marnie takes a trip to the Big Apple to visit the set of her upcoming sitcom, an obviously autobiographical piece in which Harry Hamlin shows up briefly as the actor playing her late husband—clearly causing her some tear-inducing memories. She also takes the opportunity to visit her voluble in-laws, where a somewhat strained dinner conversation centers on the disposition of Joseph’s ashes, something she’s not ready to face just yet.
Scarfia’s script is admittedly autobiographical itself, and she’s fortunate to have attracted Sarandon to play Marnie. Although the veteran actress doesn’t seem quite right for the part, she uses her considerable skill to keep the character, which might easily have come across as irritating, likable even at her most hectoring moments. Byrne isn’t given all that much to do; she just plays disconsolate, slightly weepy and angry until the inevitable big reconciliation. Simmons, meanwhile, exudes good-natured courtesy and an almost preternatural willingness to put up with Marnie’s initial standoffishness—exhibiting his range, since it’s about the polar opposite of his Oscar-winning turn in “Whiplash.” The rest of the supporting cast is fine (though those playing Marnie’s in-laws come off rather as stereotypes), except for poor Michael McKean, who portrays the sole bad apple in the bunch—a bumbling suitor whose unwanted advances Marnie finally repels forcefully. It’s a character that’s frankly poorly written, and McKean can’t really make sense of him.
“The Meddler” is more than adequate from a technical point of view, with cinematographer Brett Pawlak taking advantage of the California locations and a few in New York as well, and the other craft contributions are solid if unexceptional.
The same sort of faint praise applies to the movie as a whole. It’s harmless and generally likable, and will be enjoyed by older audiences—particularly women who are mothers themselves, and might have been a mite overprotective of their children. But it could have used some of the toughness that must have marked Minervinis when they lived back in Brooklyn.