Here’s a witty, solidly acted comedy that’s sad at the same time.

“The Meddler” offers an adult-angled take on the endless skirmishes between mothers and daughters, a timeless trope that has spawned more entertainment than Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” And why not? Watching them swing from mutual love to making faces at each other, maintaining their blood ties or drifting apart, makes blissful humor and tear-jerking drama.

Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s film could sink or swim depending on which angle it takes. As kind of a dry dark comedy about isolation, it gets the balance right.

Susan Sarandon plays the well-intentioned but maddening title character. Marnie is a perky, financially secure widow who moves from New Jersey to Los Angeles soon after her husband’s passing. You get the sense that he courted her not because she was the smartest woman available, but the nicest. A lot of her focus vanished with him, which led to her move west. There she lives close to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), an ambitious, semi-miserable mid-30s TV writer. Marnie is no longer tied closely to her home, or to Lori, or really to much of anything except the sizable fortune her spouse left behind.

Marnie never fails to share a friendly smile, not because she’s outgoing, but because she’s morose and hungry for human contact. She lives in the Grove, a high-end retail and entertainment promenade that resembles an outdoor shopping mall. She thinks it’s just like Disneyland, and it is — a spacious, sterile, synthetic environment where Stepford Wives can ride a useless trolley and buy high-end nothings.

It’s a place where Marnie does a lot of artificial sightseeing and visits a lot of stores because she is lonely and bored. She spends so much time at the local Apple store’s Genius Bar that she persuades her young coach to sign up for college classes and volunteers to drive him to campus, building a cordial relationship like peas in a pod.

Lori, who should be her most intimate pal, is driven to near insanity by her mother’s incessant, near endless voice mails. She is domineering in the kindest possible way, the sort who suffocates you with lovely pillows.

Her surprise visits with arms full of gifts feel like home invasions. Lori is moving on faster than Mom from her dad’s loss. Her own crisis is being dumped by her boyfriend, a TV star who isn’t really such a hot catch. She must have been crazy in love, because she’s inconsolable now. In her industry, a woman of 35 is at the retirement age of dating, and she’s not prepared to become Marnie’s canasta partner. Byrne gives her role a neurotic edge that’s a fine contrast to Sarandon’s warm neediness.

There are a few rote scenes here — isn’t the senior citizen getting stoned on dope an illegal cliché yet? — but Scafaria mostly serves up the story fresh. She understands that it’s one of life’s ironies that people we sincerely love can drive us nuts. She creates a companionship between Marnie and a good retired cop (J.K. Simmons) that shows a moderate sort of grown people’s attraction, not the down-on-your-knees kind of devotion too many movies would invent as a happy ending. Marnie finds it easier to emotionally hug complete strangers rather than someone who would step into the role of the late love of her life. The film has a lot of smart, sharp observations like that.

Scafaria has explained that the film is pretty accurately based on her relationship with her own mother, giving it well rounded characters and a good, stranger-than-fiction feel. It also sets up a fine scene when Marnie visits the set of Lori’s new comedy pilot and realizes she’s watching their own life stories being played out for a laugh track. Like the film, it’s lighthearted and a little heartbreaking.

 

 

Colin.Covert@startribune.com

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Twitter: @colincovert