Lawrence Toppman

‘The Meddler’ gets under our skins in a good way

Susan Sarandon, left, and Rose Byrne in “The Meddler.”
Susan Sarandon, left, and Rose Byrne in “The Meddler.” Sony Pictures Classics

What I liked best about “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” Lorene Scafaria’s writing-directing debut in 2012, was that the world really did end. Just as we came to care deeply about the characters, BOOM! No more characters. She took the story where, given the parameters she’d established, it had to go.

That’s also true of “The Meddler,” which gives in more to sentimentality but follows its nose to a logical conclusion. Scafaria doesn’t solve everyone’s problems or end with a miraculous change of mind or heart. She writes credible situations (except one, where a woman accidentally walks onto a film set and ends up in the scene) and characters in whom we can believe.

Recently widowed Marnie (Susan Sarandon) has moved to Los Angeles to be near daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). Marnie has arrived with a huge bank account and no idea how to fill up her days, other than to micromanage Lori’s life. Because Lori has never learned how to set boundaries, they approach estrangement, until work calls Lori to New York.

Marnie, a love-seeking lamprey, attaches herself to the clerk at the Apple store who helps her with computers (Jerrod Carmichael), driving him metaphorically into night school and then literally to night school after hearing he has no car. She latches onto Lori’s pal Jillian (Cecily Strong), who laments she never had the proper wedding – the $13,000 kind, which is just a drop in Marnie’s deep financial bucket and easily provided.

Then Marnie meets Zipper (J.K. Simmons), a retired cop who doesn’t want anything but reciprocated affection. We know where we’re going, but the Oscar-winning actors take us there with ease and charm. Sarandon reveals the kind spirit beneath the nervous, needy exterior; Simmons, in a 180-degree reversal from the manipulative teacher in “Whiplash,” relaxes into the part of a guy who rolls with Fate’s punches. He’d rather take Marnie, but he’ll be OK if he has to leave her alone.

A lesser movie might solve Lori’s problems, too: immaturity, workaholic tendencies, no love interest. But though the 38-year-old Scafaria is Lori’s age, she’s more interested in her parents’ generation: Marnie and Zipper seem more fully alive than anyone else. Movies that treat people in their 60s with honesty and respect are rare enough to make “The Meddler” even more welcome for that.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The Meddler

Cast: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Jerrod Carmichael.

Writer-director: Lorene Scafaria.

Length: 100 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (brief drug content).

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