'The Meddler' (PG-13) is a mother-daughter story that gets the details right

Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s The Meddler could easily be dismissed as a one-percenter film. It’s a movie about a wealthy widow whose troubles aren’t exactly life-threatening. Marnie (Susan Sarandon) is not homeless, oppressed or hungry. In fact, she owns a pretty nice condo in Los Angeles and can afford a smoking-hot Lexus convertible. She’s completely immune to the everyday struggles of paying the mortgage or worrying about what Medicare will cover.

But to write off this comic drama would be a mistake: Like its protagonist, the movie has a lot more going on than you see at first glance. The Meddler has all the trappings of a Hollywood film, with a conclusion that is never really in doubt. But Scafaria — who wrote and directed Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and co-wrote Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist — elevates the material with a terrific eye for detail, an understanding of the complexities of mother-daughter relationships and a generous sense of humor.

As the film opens, Marnie is approaching the second anniversary of her husband’s death. Outwardly, she seems to be doing fine. She’s keeping busy, enjoying the L.A. weather, pestering the kid who works at the Genius Bar at the Apple store.

Most of her time, though, is spent intruding in the personal life and space of her understandably combative adult single daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), a television writer. Given to turning up unannounced and offering myriad suggestions on how Lori should lead her life, Marnie is a well-meaning pest. When Lori says, “I think we should get you a hobby,” Marnie replies brightly: “Maybe you could be my hobby!” Every adult daughter in the theater will cringe.

The truth is, Marnie is not all right. She’s lost and lonely and struggling, trying and failing to fill the long hours of her day. She doesn’t know what to do with her husband’s remains or what to put on his headstone. His Italian family in Brooklyn wants lyrics from Frank Sinatra’s My Way. She doesn’t really want to think about it.

Finally forced to give Lori breathing room, she begins to turn her attention to others: Lori’s friends, the kid at the Genius Bar, the silent patient in the hospital where Marnie begins to volunteer. She has two crucial things to offer: money and her attention, and she is willing to spend excesses of both. One of the reassuringly honest aspects about The Meddler is that it does not downplay how money can make a difference in someone’s life.

But Marnie’s kindness and attention make a difference to people, too, and she begins to make herself indispensible. A chance at romance pops up in the form of Michael McKean (as the father of a friend) and then J.K. Simmons as Zipper, a retired cop working as a security guard. Marnie is unwilling to take these chances. A new romance would mean she’s moving on, and she’s not ready. Not yet.

The Meddler excels at telling details: the lipstick staining Marnie’s teeth (she’s not as put-together as she thinks); the dog pillows on Lori’s sofa (of course she would have them — she refers to her two pets as her mother’s “grand-dogs”); the way Marnie visibly relaxes into telling a funny story about herself when she’s back in Brooklyn with her husband’s family (the way she misses them and her old life all the more poignant for the understatement); Zipper’s gentle affection for the chickens he raises (he swears they love Dolly Parton).

Scafaria also captures the blunt, honest pain of loss. “It’s hard to look at you sometimes,” Lori tells her mother tearfully. “It’s like half the room is missing.” The beauty of The Meddler is in its insistence that grief passes — even if you can’t buy your way to happiness.

Cast: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Michael McKean.

Writer-director: Lorene Scafaria.

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 100 minutes. Brief drug content. Playing at: area theaters.

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