The Meddler

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When reading the plot synopsis of “The Meddler,” I walked into it expecting a formulaic comedy dealing in stereotypes like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” did. Not that working with stereotypes is always a bad thing, but it can get old very quickly and leave audiences with not much that is worth remembering when they leave the theater. Plus, the movie’s story deals with a parent interfering in the life of their offspring at the most inconvenient time in their life, and how many times have we seen that before? We all know it will build up to that moment where the offspring will say, “Mom, I love you but will you PLEASE GET THE HELL OUT OF MY LIFE??!!” But despite this inescapable confrontation, we know everything will work out in the end.

Well, “The Meddler” turned out to be a pleasant surprise as it is a movie made from the heart more than anything else. A lot of it has to do with the fact writer and director Lorene Scafaria (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) based the story on her own mother and the relationship she had with her. But while this might sound like a buddy comedy, it’s really more about the mother and it gives Susan Sarandon one of the best roles she has had in recent years.

Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini who, as “The Meddler” begins, is staring listlessly at the ceiling fan in her bedroom. We learn Marnie was recently widowed and has since moved from the east coast to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). As the title suggests, she endlessly interferes in Lori’s life and then goes on to help others whom she feels need her assistance. But deep down she is still struggling with the loss of her husband, someone she was with for decades and who has now vanished from her life. While she looks very pleasant on the outside, Marnie is still struggling to come to terms with her husband’s death and is trying to find new meaning in her life.

What I loved about Sarandon’s performance is how she avoids the easy trap of turning Minnie into a simple caricature and instead turns this character into this wonderful human who is infinitely generous to a fault. Even as Minnie gets a little too involved in her daughter’s life, Sarandon never makes her seem the slightest bit aggravating. It’s also great fun to see her roam around The Grove as if it were Disneyland because it shows just how new to Los Angeles Minnie really is.

Sarandon also has a great foil to work with in Rose Byrne who plays Minnie’s daughter Lori. Byrne also could have made Lori, a writer for television, into a caricature, but she makes her into someone with work problems we can all relate to regardless of whatever industry we work in. Lori is enduring a lot of problems in her life other than her mother such as being dumped by her celebrity boyfriend Jacob (Jason Ritter) which still weighs heavily on her, and she is not sure how she can move on past her heartbreak. Ever since the scene in “Neighbors” where she succeeded in getting two college students to seduce one another, she has remained a terrific actress and one with very sharp comedic skills.

During “The Meddler,” Minnie is met by a couple of men who are eager to get to know her better. One is Michael McKean’s overly earnest Mark whose idea of a date is to take Minnie to the Holocaust Museum, but it’s hard to imagine anyone getting romantic over there. McKean is always fun to watch no matter what movie he’s in, and he makes the most of his limited screen time as a guy who can’t quite take a hint.

The other suitor is a retired cop turned movie set security guard who goes by the name of Zipper, and he is played in a scene-stealing performance by J.K. Simmons. While being upstaged somewhat by an awesome looking mustache, Simmons makes Zipper into a uniquely lovable guy, and he is wonderful to watch as he introduces Sarandon to his nest of chickens. We’ve seen this Oscar-winning actor go from playing a warm-hearted father in “Juno” to an insanely brutal music instructor in “Whiplash,” and this is not to mention his terrific work in the first three “Spider-Man.” But in “The Meddler” Simmons gets to play a role many of us haven’t seen him play before, a romantic leading man, and he pulls it off beautifully.

What makes “The Meddler” an especially strong movie is how genuine it is in its emotions. Not once did its story feel the least bit manipulative, and its portrait of people trying to move past the loss of a loved one feels authentic in its portrayal. Nothing ever feels cloying or artificial, and it also helps that Sarandon, Byrne, and Simmons are surrounded by a wonderful cast which includes “SNL’s” Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch (the moment where she tosses a baby shower gift aside is priceless), Jason Ritter, Casey Wilson and Jerrod Carmichael. Each actor succeeds in creating unique characters who are fun to hang out with, and watching them is a reminder of how there is never a role too small for an actor to play.

Although it deals with the heavy subjects of grief, heartbreak and losing a loved one, “The Meddler” proves to be a very positive movie which is optimistic in its view of life. In a time where many movies feature infinitely cynical characters, here’s one with a woman of a certain age (and lord knows there’s not enough of those) who is very giving and generous. Even when she appears to be more generous than anyone should be, we keep watching the movie with the hope her spirit will stay strong during even the toughest of times.

“The Meddler” was made on a low budget and on a very shooting schedule, and everyone involved succeeded in giving us something much better than we could have expected. Please don’t let the fact it is not a superhero movie keep you from checking it out.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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The Fourth Noble Truth

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Watching “The Fourth Noble Truth” quickly reminded me of how much I personally benefit from doing meditation, and of how I need to get back into the habit of doing it on a regular basis. It’s very beneficial as it allows your brain to have a rest from all the thoughts and concerns which constantly run through it, and it helped me during a time where I suffered deeply from anxiety and depression. Gary T. McDonald’s film explores meditation from a Buddhist perspective as two people come together while searching for true happiness, and the end result feels emotionally honest about a topic some would be loath to take seriously.

Before we get to the movie’s opening title, we are introduced to movie star Aaron Redmond (Harry Hamlin) who does a Jack Nicholson and bashes another person’s car with a golf club. This is all it takes for the audience to see that this guy has serious anger management issues, and the movie wastes little time in showing him driving out to the home of a Buddhist meditation teacher named Rachel (the lovely Kristen Kerr) as it is part of his sentence for being convicted of road rage.

The way Aaron sees it, he has everything a person could ever want, so how can he be the least bit unhappy? Rachel, however, is not impressed with his bad boy movie star persona and sets about teaching him each of the noble truths while guiding him through meditations. However, his constant flirtations end up getting the best of her, and they end up spending the night together. From there they are both forced to reassess their life choices or risk losing the love and happiness they strive for.

In case you are wondering what the four noble truths are, they express the basic orientation of Buddhism which says this worldly existence is fundamentally unsatisfactory, but there is a path to liberation from repeated worldly existence. The truths are as follows:

Life is full of psychic suffering, such as stress, angst, discontent, and unhappiness.

The cause of this suffering is desire. Not the fleeting kind, but a clinging or attachment for things like material possessions, people, and validation.

If you end these fixations, you will stop suffering.

You end suffering by walking the Eightfold Path, which is a way of life embodying these virtues:

Right Understanding

Right Intention

Right Speech

Right Action

Right Livelihood

Right Effort

Right Mindfulness

Right Concentration

The Buddha taught that developing the virtues of the fourth noble truth is the key to happiness. Of course, getting to the last truth is always the hard part.

I liked how Hamlin’s character evolves throughout the film. His skepticism over meditation is understandable as most people, including myself, come into it with a lot of doubt over if it will do them any good. Also, getting the handle of meditation takes some time because you are bound to start off feeling like you’re not doing it right. His character of Aaron refuses to take meditation seriously at first, and he is mostly interested in getting the judge in his case off his back more than anything else. But while he appears to be confident in being the man he is, we can see from the start he is one seriously unhappy dude.

Hamlin has been around for a long time, and my generation knows him best for his roles in “Clash of the Titans” (the original, not the remake) and the TV show “LA Law.” These days he is better known for his work on the shows “Mad Men,” “Glee,” and “Shameless.” At 63, he still has an effortless charisma about him which makes him perfect for this role of an over the hill celebrity who has yet to realize material possessions do not equal happiness.

I’m not familiar with Kristen Kerr’s work, but she left quite the impression on me as Rachel. When we first meet her, she appears to be a master in the ways of meditation and has reached a great place in her life where everything seems balanced. But as the movie goes on, she comes to see how uncertain she is of whether or not she has reached the fourth noble truth as she makes the biggest mistake a meditation teacher can make.

It should go without saying how nobody is perfect, but this threatens to do a disservice to Rachel as she quickly realizes the errors of her ways. Kerr makes Rachel a fascinating character as a result because we really root for her to hold onto her bearings and not give up on her pursuit to achieve happiness. It’s never an easy road as life is full of endless trials and tribulations, and we come out of this movie relieved Rachel has not lost her way. Kerr is a wonderfully appealing presence from start to finish, and she makes us believe in the benefits of meditation in a way few other actors could.

McDonald’s previous directorial credits include “The Sea Wolf” and the documentary “Rape/Crisis,” movies I have yet to see. He does a commendable job of taking this relationship story and makes it feel down to earth and not the least bit contrived. When Aaron and Rachel fall for one another, I thought the movie was going to shoot itself in the foot and lose all credibility, but their relationship serves to give “The Fourth Noble Truth” more complex issues to explore. What I admired most was how the movie explored meditation and the relationship issues these two characters experience to where it feels emotionally honest in a very satisfying way.

In some ways, “The Fourth Noble Truth” is somewhat undone by its understandably low budget, and I hate to say that because movies like these are forced to deal with whatever resources they can get a hold of. I could see this script being done as a play onstage, so it doesn’t feel as cinematic as a movie should. But despite its flaws, it serves as a nice introduction to what meditation can do for your own well-being. It’s not meant to be an instructional manual on meditation, but if it were then it wouldn’t be as effective.

“The Fourth Noble Truth” is coming in well below the radar amidst all the big blockbusters which threaten to occupy our local multiplexes at the expense of everything else. My hope is more people get exposed to it on the big screen long before it becomes available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

* * * out of * * * *