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Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons have a romantic moment on a West Coast beach in The Meddler.

A few weeks ago in my review of Hello, My Name Is Doris, I wrote about the slight uptick we’re seeing in movies made as vehicles for older actresses. Susan Sarandon hasn’t been hurting for work at any point since she won her Oscar 20 years ago, but honest-to-goodness leading roles haven’t been coming thick and fast for this actress who turns 70 this year. The Meddler puts her front and center, and while it’s no masterpiece, it’s a charming comedy that stands as one of the better ones in its field.

She plays the meddler in the title, Marnie Minervini, a widowed housewife from Brooklyn who has moved out to L.A. to be near her only child Lori (Rose Byrne), a TV show creator who’s now a mopey mess after being dumped by her movie-star boyfriend (Jason Ritter). Marnie texts her daughter incessantly with romantic advice, career advice, and random thoughts on the latest Beyoncé song, and she leaves so many phone messages that she inevitably gets into a car accident while talking on the phone. When Lori acts on her therapist’s advice and tries to set some boundaries, Marnie’s response is to make an appointment with the therapist (Amy Landecker) and spend the entire session quizzing her on what her daughter has said. Marnie’s hiding from her own issues, as she still hasn’t picked out a headstone for her husband when he’s been dead two years, and she flees the scene when an eligible guy (Michael McKean) hits on her at a party.

The film breaks gratifyingly out of this holding pattern when Lori heads to New York for a few weeks to get away from her mom as much as to shoot the pilot episode of her new show. Unmoored, Marnie gets into a series of misadventures, overcoming her reservations to volunteer at a hospital, giving career advice to the guy at the Apple store (Jerrod Carmichael) who shows her how to use her iPad, and canvassing Lori’s friends, going so far as to impulsively give one of them (Cecily Strong) $13,000 to have her long-delayed dream wedding, despite barely knowing her name. (To Marnie’s credit, she does not back out when she learns that the friend is marrying a woman.) Seeing Marnie somewhat unhinged gives a freedom to this part of the story, and Sarandon strikes up a nice rapport with J.K. Simmons as a retired cop who meets her when she blunders onto a movie set. There’s a nice bit, too, when Marnie visits the set of Lori’s show in New York and realizes that it’s based on Lori’s own life with her parents.

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Lori is a thinly disguised alter ego of writer-director Lorene Scafaria, both Italian-Americans from New Jersey who made their way to Hollywood to take charge of their own projects. She made a blazing screenwriting debut with the 2008 comedy Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, but her directing debut, the apocalyptic comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, didn’t go so well. She has come up with better material here, but she’s still learning as a director. Byrne’s comic resources are largely wasted here, and while Carmichael gets to play both his straitlaced character and sketchy twin brother, nothing comes of it. The lesbian wedding is dropped for a very long stretch only to be picked up again near the end. And why do so many of these comedies about older people have them getting high at some point? Does everybody find this funnier than I do? The parts of the movie don’t fit together, and it makes for a somewhat frustrating experience.

Still, on a moment-to-moment basis, The Meddler is never less than pleasant to be around. This vision of an older woman learning to build a new life of her own instead of living vicariously through her daughter is a beguiling one. If you walked out of Mother’s Day wondering how that star-studded comedy went so badly wrong, this movie about a mother and daughter will give you a much-needed tonic.

[box_info]The Meddler
Starring Susan Sarandon and Rose Byrne. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]

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