Susan Sarandon’s Mommy Issues

What happens when the private persona of a performer bleeds over into the public creative sphere? The line is so fragile it often rends our ability to lose ourselves in the fictional world of art.

Susan Sarandon is an actor and activist now starring in Lorene Scafaria's odd, unexpectedly moving new film The Meddler, in which she speaks with a Joisey accent yet somehow manages to transcend the pitfalls of her potentially clichéd character, a widow graced with too much free time, money, and a daughter (Rose Byrne, a few colors short of a fully dimensional character) who resists her arrival in the younger woman's adopted home, Los Angeles.

Onscreen, Sarandon ends up mothering a host of unlikely strangers. Off screen she spent years being scolded for her outspokenness -- like Jane Fonda, before both women's place in popular culture shifted to approval for continuing to bare their beautiful bodies despite no longer being in their twenties. Each has also chosen to pursue comedy, as if to leaven her legacy as a complicated cultural touchstone.

Now that Sarandon has revealed herself to be a better actor than many of us gave her credit for -- utterly convincing as a thoughtful person -- she presents us with a dilemma: what to do about the lovely movie in which she appears. Written and directed by the screenwriter of the delightful, unsung Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, The Meddler seems about to go off the rails at every turn, but it never does.

The film has no business being as entertaining as it is. From the moment we first hear Sarandon's chewy accent, it's hard not to fear a replay of the painful misfire Tammy, which uglied up a miscast Sarandon, trying hard to hide her light under a stereotype. But Scafaria's latest film somehow manages to skate the border of quirky and cute as it pursues a seemingly straightforward story from a skewed perspective, with a well-chosen cast of comic female and dramatic male talent, including a touching J.K. Simmons in the Sam Elliott role.

Even while offering lesbian weddings and African-American men with shady relatives, the film keeps swerving from expected directions, leaving our preconceptions on the cutting room floor. Like the off-kilter Playlist, The Meddler surprises with charm and resonant emotion. "Only connect" is Sarandon's character's goal, and she achieves it with both lightness and depth.

Female directors too rarely get chances to make films, and are even more rarely granted the several chances to fail that those male colleagues who remind producers of their younger selves are granted. As it grows more difficult to rise above the noise of our 24-7 blogosphere, that any film of quality gets made at all counts as a miracle.

I saw The Meddler on a rare outing in the midst of a medically traumatic period, and was lifted, amused and grateful to be taken out of myself. Although the experience is now complicated by my reaction to its star's continuing public performances, I can still feel the euphoria and sweetness it provoked. - Helen Eisenbach

Ms. Eisenbach is a journalist, screenwriter, and author of the novel Loonglow  and the satirical how-to/cry for help Lesbianism Made Easy.

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