Comedies The Meddler and Maggie’s Place premiere at the Toronto Film Festival
On the surface, there may not be a lot in common with these two movies that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival other than that they’re both comedies written and directed by women about two very different women trying to control all aspects of their lives (and other’s) which ultimately ends up screwing things up even worse. Yay, women!
The Meddler’s Lorene Scafaria and Maggie’s Plan writer/director Rebecca Miller are both experienced filmmakers, but seeing their two movies within a day of each other made it obvious how well one works as a comedy compared to the other.
Greta Gerwig plays the title role in Miller’s film as a teacher whose biological clock is ticking and she’s ready to have a baby via artificial insemination with an amorous hipster acquaintance willing to donate the sperm part of the equation. Then she meets Ethan Hawke’s John Harding, a married fellow professor and aspiring novelist who eventually leaves his domineering wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) to be with her. Years later, they have a daughter of their own and are sharing custody of John’s children and things aren’t exactly what Maggie had hoped and dreamed for, so she comes up with a plan to get John back together with his ex.
In The Meddler, Susan Sarandon is Marnie, a widow who has moved to California to be closer to her daughter (Rose Byrne), and as the title suggests, Marnie is a meddler who is always giving unwanted advice to anyone who will listen including the Apple Store genius (Jerrod Carmichael from Neighbors) and Marnie’s friends. She also meets a retired policeman, played by J.K. Simmons, who is interested in her and they have a nice evening together, but then Marnie returns to New York to see her daughter and her dead husband’s family and her feelings change.
Rebecca Miller’s earlier films Personal Velocity and The Ballad of Jack and Rose were character dramas, so it’s surprising to see her taking on a movie that seems more in the wheelhouse of Noah Baumbach and then casting his collaborator Gerwig in a role that isn’t too far removed from the movies they’ve done together. Miller is a good enough writer to make the transition, although the character just doesn’t do much to show that Gerwig has much range as she delivers Maggie’s dialogue the same way she did Frances Ha and Lola in Lola Versus, not really giving it much other than to deliver the lines. Because of this, Maggie seems like another awful self-absorbed and entitled New Yorker like we’ve seen in far too many other movies, most notably those by Baumbach.
The other characters around Maggie aren’t much better, with Julianne Moore doing rare comedy while portraying Georgette essentially as Madeline Kahn’s impression of Marlene Dietrich, although at least her character is given more depth as the film goes along.
Hawke’s character is another one of those wannabe writers whose work, when read aloud, sounds so ludicrous that you can’t imagine him finding much success, but this is another attempt at creating a comedy within the literary world that’s meant to appeal to people who are as pretentious as the characters. Granted, they do exist, but I wouldn’t want to spend any time with them either. (Miller’s attempt to appeal to younger viewers goes so far as to cast Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill in a cameo.)
Scafaria is working from a far more accessible and relatable premise and casting Susan Sarandon in the well-fitting role of Marnie gives The Meddler its strongest proponent. Scafaria clearly has a lot of ideas and some of them work better than others like a random bit where Marnie wanders onto a working film set and ends up as an extra.
What Scafaria also has going for her is a strong comedic cast of current and ex-“Saturday Night Live” alums with the presence of Byrne and Carmichael (playing two roles, no less), showing the director to be a fan of Neighbors (even Randall Park has a cameo). Not that Bill Hader or Maya Rudolph are slouches, although in Maggie’s Plan they’re basically relegated to the typical best friend roles we’ve seen in far too many romantic comedies, essentially the Greek Chorus advising Maggie what we already know, that her plan isn’t a sound one.
The Meddler is slightly uneven, especially as it goes along and is less about Sarandon annoying her daughter, plus it also has a tough time figuring out how to end things. Maggie’s Plan has a similar problem, although in that case you probably will figure out where things are heading fairly early on, and the fact it goes for such an obvious ending just makes it more aggravating.
The Meddler is a genuine crowdpleaser, mainly due to Susan Sarandon, which does more with its simple premise than Maggie’s Plan does with its overly complex and not particularly funny one.
The Meddler: 7 out of 10
Maggie’s Plan: 5.5 out of 10
Rose Byrne as Lori Minervini
Greta Gerwig as Maggie