Grief is complicated. Feelings always are. We have no control over them, and can’t set any expectations for them in the ways that we can with other parts of life. Logically, we know that February is cold, but that summer will eventually return. We know that having the flu is terrible, but that it won’t last forever. But just as we can’t make happiness last forever, we can’t decide, in due course, to put grief away as we do a wool coat in May.
The Meddler, a new film written and directed by Lorene Scafaria is a thoughtful and subtle examination of the way grief follows us for years and sneaks in as soon as we let our guard down. The film stars Susan Sarandon as Marnie, a widow intent on not letting her guard down. Marnie moves to California to be closer to her screenwriter daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). Her late husband left her enough money that she’s essentially set for life, which means she has a lot of free time. Marnie needs something or someone to fill the space that her husband and her general contentment used to occupy, but Lori is disinclined to be the focus of so much motherly attention. When Lori leaves for an extended stay in New York City, Marnie is forced to focus her energy elsewhere, to the benefit of Lori’s friend (Cecily Strong), Marnie’s favorite Apple Store sales associate (Jerrod Carmichael), and a possible new gentleman friend (J.K. Simmons).
This is a story that is heavily focused on character as opposed to story or plot, and that requires some heavy lifting from Sarandon. Luckily, she’s up to the challenge. She does a fantastic job of keeping Marnie, a fairly eccentric character, from veering into an overbearing mother caricature. Marnie’s decisions are sometimes ill-advised, but even when you don’t agree with them, you understand them. In one short scene on an airplane, Sarandon manages to make the audience feel both her anguish over the loss of her husband and her giddiness over her new crush. And the swing from one to the other doesn’t even seem contrived.
The only drawback to allowing Sarandon so much of the time and focus is that we don’t get to spend more time with the supporting characters. Byrne (in what could be an especially thankless role) and Simmons are both good if a bit underused. But the extended supporting cast here is an embarrassment of funny lady riches, and they are disappointingly underutilized. Cecily Strong gets some time to stretch beyond the confines of Saturday Night Live, but we only get one real scene with the fantastic Lucy Punch, while Sarah Baker and Casey Wilson – two talented actresses who have been known to steal a scene or ten – are essentially glorified extras.
Even that’s hard to hold against Scafaria, though, since the movie as a whole is well-balanced. The Meddler is a little heartbreaking and a lot charming. The title suggests something much more heavy-handed, but in the end, The Meddler subtly reminds us that grief doesn’t exist without love, and that finding happiness takes work. You can’t have loss unless you have something to lose, after all. A more cynical story would have suggested it’s not worth bothering, but this one falls more in the vein of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”