You gotta love Marnie Minervini, the nosy, needy, New Jersey transplant and title character of "The Meddler." That she's played with such instinctual warmth and comic verve by the estimable Susan Sarandon is the icing on a well-baked cake, courtesy of writer-director Lorene Scafaria ("Seeking a Friend for the End of the World").
The latest in a recent and quite welcome subgenre of films involving older single people navigating new phases of life ("I'll See You in My Dreams," "Grandma," "The Intern," "Hello, My Name Is Doris" and others), "The Meddler" offers a charming, authentic and well-observed mix of comedy and poignancy as it follows Marnie's happyish adjustment to living in Los Angeles after the death of her beloved husband, Joe.
Marnie, replete with leopard-print tops and unapologetic Brooklyn accent (she was born there), has moved west to be near her screenwriter daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). Despite being intoxicated by the weather, her freedom, a sizable nest egg and a little shopping mall called the Grove (the film's a love letter to the place), Marnie is aching for human connection, something the busy and depressed Lori can't give her — and makes no bones to sugarcoat. (Lori is not the most likable character, but viewers of a certain age should readily identify with her.)
That doesn't stop the boundaries-free Marnie from leaving Lori hilarious strings of iPhone messages and texts filled with activity reports, news flashes and maternal advice, particularly regarding Lori's ex-boyfriend, Jacob (Jason Ritter). Although these missives go unanswered, Marnie keeps them up, plus she regularly appears on Lori's doorstep unannounced. Suffice to say, it's not the best recipe for mother-daughter relations.
When Lori leaves for New York to shoot a TV pilot, Marnie goes into do-gooder overdrive: She helps plan — and pay for — Lori's lesbian friend's (Cecily Strong) wedding, chauffeurs a kindly Apple store employee (Jerrod Carmichael) to night school, and volunteers at the hospital. Marnie's low-key therapist (Amy Landecker) wonders if she's overcompensating and simply not facing her own issues. (Ya think?) Yet to Marnie, it's all about being useful.
Marnie even serves as an extra for a day when she stumbles onto a beachside movie set. It's there she meets Randy Zipper (J.K. Simmons), an endearing retired cop working security for the film. They strike up an easy friendship, but is more in the cards for them?
Much else happens for Marnie on her latter-day road to personal discovery, with an unsuitable suitor (Michael McKean) and Joe's ebullient Italian family factoring in as well. If the film can't technically be called "episodic," it is filled with perhaps a few too many episodes, entertaining and well played though they may be. A bit more narrative discipline and tighter pacing, especially in the movie's third act, would have been a plus.
Not enough can be said about the terrific Sarandon, whose Marnie is reportedly based on Scafaria's own widowed mother. The actress beautifully runs the gamut of emotions and reactions, managing the character's amusing mix of earnest efforts and maternal — and social — missteps with realism, depth and grace. Amazingly, for someone who's played such a variety of film roles over so many years, it feels like we've never seen Sarandon in a role quite like the game, life-affirming and, yes, Beyonce-loving Marnie. Not to mention she also looks great.
Though the film has more laughs than tears, watch out for a wonderful, hugely moving use of the 1980s Juice Newton hit "Angel of the Morning." Gotta love that, too.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief drug content
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles