Maybe you haven’t seen The Meddler yet, in which case Mother’s Day is just around the corner and writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s funny, heartwarming autobiographical story about a mother (Susan Sarandon) who moves to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter (Rose Byrne) could make a perfect postprandial activity this Sunday. Though it’s a small miracle that this is even an option, because last night, after a screening at ArcLight Hollywood, Scafaria told the audience “nobody wanted to make this movie.”
Not surprisingly, a dramedy about grief—at least in part—is a tough sell in a superhero-saturated market: Sarandon’s Marnie relocates to California from the East Coast after her husband dies, and it quickly becomes obvious that her hyper-involvement in other people’s lives is an extension of her newfound loneliness. She spends her days happily wandering the Grove and thinking it wouldn’t be so bad to be hit by one of its slow-moving trolleys. She follows those yellow-and-black signs that guide cast and crews to set and accidentally ends up as an extra. She returns to the Grove to watch the fountains dance to the croons of Sinatra, eat a pie at Du-Pars, and befriend an Apple store genius (Jarrod Carmichael). Basically, a lot of the story unfolds at the Grove, and throughout her day she regularly calls her screenwriter daughter, Lori, to describe these activities in excruciating detail.
Scafaria said she actually filmed five minutes of the movie with her own mother at the famed outdoor shopping plaza to help convince studio executives that it was a compelling story, but it was Sarandon’s participation that sealed the deal and helped secure talent like Byrne, Cecily Strong, Casey Wilson, and J.K. Simmons, who plays Marnie’s chicken-owning love interest. “I was just happy I wasn’t dying, helping someone die, or dealing with dementia—I get that in most scripts that I read,” said Sarandon, who looked much younger than 69 in a copper-colored pantsuit, still sporting a foot cast from a skiing injury. One gentleman in attendance called her “epigrammatically alluring,” and though nobody was sure what that meant, the Thelma & Louise star seemed pleased.
Scafaria, who wrote 2008’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and directed 2012’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, reports that it was a struggle to keep the most important element of the story—that this remain her mother’s story—in tact. “I was asked if everybody could be a few years younger, or for more of the daughter, or if it could be a two-hander,” she said, referring to the fact that the always-delightful Byrne is a strictly supporting player here. Her Google history, which includes “how many Valium does it take to overdose” and “green poop,” are a cause of some concern, sending Marnie running to Lori’s therapist (Transparent’s Amy Landecker), but while mother and daughter share some tender scenes together, the movie belongs to the Marnie and her reluctant acceptance of life as a widow. Sarandon vibrates onscreen in a way that few actresses over 35 are allowed to, and she does it while staying completely true to the character, right down to wearing Scafaria’s mom’s wardrobe, which consisted of several sensible Chico’s ensembles.
One theatergoer asked Sarandon about her own obstacles and how she’s overcome them. “I have a lot of disappointments,” said Sarandon. “But everything led to where I am. I don’t want to say I’m blessed, because I’m not receiving a music award, but I’m here because all other plans failed.” She paused, before adding “There’s been some ugliness surrounding certain stances I took before certain wars.” Sarandon is a longtime liberal activist and die-hard Bernie supporter who has spoken out against the Iraq War. “But it’s all good.”