‘The Meddler’ Is Too Sitcom-Safe to Truly Transcend Its Genre’s Tropes

Susan Sarandon smothers in her latest role.

For a movie so conventional in its generational humor, The Meddler has some first-rate incidental jokes—throwaways that make its huggy conclusions much easier to tolerate. For instance, why does a psychologist have a rabbit hutch next to her office chair? It is never explained, nor even mentioned. It is just there, as it somehow must be. And in the opening montage that introduces us to the title character, we listen to sexagenarian buttinsky Marnie (Susan Sarandon) describe her new life as a widow in L.A. At some point we realize she’s leaving a typically verbose message for adult daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), which includes the news that she’s unpacking “all my artwork” (we see a painting of Kermit the Frog) and “that doll that I had made of you” (we see—wow, that looks like a humanoid toy resembling a mummified child). We never hear about that creepy doll again, but the tossed-off gag lets us understand that Marnie has a somewhat overenthusiastic concept of parental commitment.

The film’s scenes of Marnie trampling across Lori’s life are stock sitcom material, but thankfully the movie isn’t focused on this one relationship (even if the marketing campaign suggests as much). This is really Sarandon’s show, and although the brassy part isn’t a perfect fit—with the Brooklyn accent, the role seems conceived for a Bette Midler type—the veteran actress pulls it off with considerable gusto. Marnie volunteers at a hospital, mentors a nice young man (Jerrod Carmichael) at the Apple store, and talks things out with the hare-friendly therapist (the serene Amy Landecker). As Lori keeps shrugging off Marnie’s smothering hand, Marnie decides to discharge some of her motherly energy by bankrolling the wedding of her daughter’s friend (Cecily Strong, from Saturday Night Live, though you’d never know it from this blandly straight performance).

Marnie meets a nice man (J.K. Simmons), a retired cop who raises chickens. I’d feel better about this relationship if the buttery Simmons didn’t seem oddly close to his smug character from Whiplash, but at least the tentative romance doesn’t go down every expected road. There’s evidence that writer/director Lorene Scafaria, whose previous film as director was the dire Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, tried to make something a little different out of all this. Moments that clearly spring from personal experience are best; especially well-observed is the maternal impulse to mortify a daughter in public. When Marnie and Lori are eating out together—on Valentine’s Day!—Marnie spots the man who broke up with Lori. He’s a big reason for Lori’s moping throughout the film, and of course he’s out with his new girlfriend. Marnie eagerly calls him to the table, and the first thing out of her mouth is “I never said anything bad about you.” Thanks, Mom.

Sarandon’s got this stuff down. In a quieter way, Rose Byrne is doing something interesting, too. This Australian-born actress started out as another pretty face before taking an unlikely turn into the slapstick world of Bridesmaids, Neighbors, and Spy. In this movie, Byrne looks as convincingly depressed as anybody since Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia; just lifting her eyes seems to require enormous effort. That convincing performance is worth noting, and it would be great if Byrne broke out of her current mode. But first: Neighbors 2! Opening next week.

I also liked Marnie’s suspicions about serial killers (this has a payoff in a scene involving the ever-game Michael McKean as a prospective suitor) and a protracted mixup involving a pregnancy test. The latter ought to be nothing more than an updated I Love Lucy-style excuse for producing anxiety, but has an unexpected touch of wistfulness. Nevertheless, the nice bits fail to cohere because The Meddler is finally just too eager to have everything come out right. Its tendency to uplift its characters finally feels as intrusive and naïve as Marnie’s own overbearing I-can-solve-everything nature. The Meddler, rated PG-13. Opens Fri., May 13 at Pacific Place, Guild 45th., Lincoln Square.