The Meddler follows a largely rote plot as Marnie gets closer to feeling her feelings with every new interaction, but Sarandon is so wonderfully charismatic that she overshadows any predictable notes. There's a tinge of sadness in her screen presence even when she's otherwise having a great time, like she's almost able to forget her lingering grief but can still see it in her peripheral version. Flush with money after her husband's death, she spends recklessly, primarily on the increasing extravagance of that vow renewal ceremony, but never turns the viewer against her. She's resistant to advice or counsel from Lori or her brothers-in-law or her therapist (Amy Landecker), but never abrasively so. Marnie is impossible to dislike while also being a realistically-flawed character, invested with a whole person's backstory and neuroses. Sarandon makes it effortlessly easy for the viewer to route for her success.
Sarandon avoids plenty of instances where a lesser actress might have lost the audience, but she also does the work to make the viewer love her. Scafaria crafts several instances that allow Sarandon to beautifully and empathetically paint what's going on in Marnie's head. Lori's in the midst of filming an autobiographical sitcom, and while watching, Marnie gets a look of wistful sadness at a scene playing out, reminding the viewer how fresh a wound her husband's death is. The growing panic on her face as her brothers-in-law badger her to pick a memorial site for her husband puts the viewer squarely in her headspace, especially as Marnie is too polite to ever actually say what she's thinking. She and Lori share a big laugh later in the film, only for the laughter to slowly melt into sadness, spoken by Lori and unspoken by a comforting Marnie. Sarandon is doing so much to endear her character to the viewer, and it always pays off.
Sarandon dominates the film, but Scafaria is unsatisfied with just one complete and believable character. Lori is mourning in her own way as well, and gets to deliver an excellent defense against the overbearing why-don't-you-call parent. Byrne is playing this role far straighter than her work with someone like Paul Feig, and it's a welcome reminder that she's just as talented a dramatic actress as she is a comedic one. Simmons is in his Juno-mode, a salt of the earth type as appealing as his Whiplash/Oz-mode is terrifying. He and Marnie embark on a tentative and fragile romance that alternates between adorable and tender. The rest of the cast is less dynamic, but no character is easy fodder for a joke or a cheap lesson.
The Meddler is the complete package, and the best of the aforementioned older American actress indie showcases. In one of the best performances of 2016, Sarandon single-handedly justifies this whole mini-trend, providing further proof that stars like her and Sally Field are still more than capable of anchoring a film. I don't know which venerable actress will next get her due, but whoever she is, Sarandon's placed a large marker down. A-