Naivety engenders joy and pain
Back in 2011, Lorene Scafaria, who had attracted attention for her screenplay of the amiable Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, made her debut as director with Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a charming apocalyptic comedy-romance with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley that was unjustly savaged by overseas critics and, as a result, sank without trace — it’s worth a look if you can track it down. Given the enormity of the commercial failure of her debut, Scafaria would have had difficulty acquiring backing to make a second feature, but she managed it and the result is The Meddler, a small but beautifully observed showcase for the considerable talents of Susan Sarandon.
The narrative isn’t exactly original, but there’s a basic truth to this story of a lonely widow who clings to her daughter in ways that the daughter finds increasingly uncomfortable. Since the death of her wealthy Italian-American husband, Marnie (Sarandon) has moved from New York to Los Angeles to be close to Lori (Rose Byrne), a television writer who presumably headed west partly to put some distance between herself and her mother. It hasn’t worked. Marnie wants to know everything about her daughter’s activities and constantly incurs Lori’s wrath with her questions about the man Lori is trying hard to forget.
As beautifully portrayed by Sarandon, Marnie is a pest but she’s a good-hearted, generous woman. Too generous, really, because her husband left her more money than she knows what to do with. And if Lori doesn’t have time for her, she’ll find other people who might need her friendship and support. There’s Lori’s friend Jillian (Cecily Strong), for example; although Marnie has trouble remembering her name, she knows Jillian is planning to marry, and she offers to make a considerable contribution towards the wedding expenses before she even realises this is a same-sex marriage, information she takes without missing a beat. Marnie may be annoying, but she’s not prejudiced. She also takes under her wing Frank (Jerrod Carmichael), a young African American who works at the nearby Apple store and who patiently explains to Marnie — who is definitely old school — the wonders of modern technology.
There are reportedly autobiographical elements to this story and that makes sense; Marnie is such a well-observed character, so annoying and yet in her own way so wonderful that it does feel she was drawn from real-life experience. As her beleaguered daughter, Byrne is also on the money, as is JK Simmons as a Harley-riding ex-cop called Randy Zipper who plays Dolly Parton songs to his chickens to encourage them to lay more eggs.
The film is a touch long, and runs out of steam a little in the later stages, but for the most part it’s so delightful that its flaws can be overlooked. It’s a comedy with a strong basis in reality, but it’s also rather painful at times. Marnie is desperate to be loved and wanted, and her desperation is at times as uncomfortable as her wide-eyed optimism is so endearing. Anyone naive enough to tell an airport security guard that her daughter is “shooting a pilot” is an original, and Sarandon’s flawless performance gives us a meddler it’s impossible not to love. In 2013, the Australian String Quartet, which is based in Adelaide, celebrated the appointment of its latest musicians: cellist Sharon Draper and violinists Stephen King, Kristian Winther and Ioana Tache. Soon after the announcement was made, Winther and Tache married. Director Scott Hicks’s decision to make a documentary film about the ASQ proved fortuitous, because the quartet was about to enter a very interesting, and controversial, period of its existence.
Best known for his iconic feature film Shine (1996), Hicks has long had an interest in music documentaries, as his 2007 film Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts will attest. In the deliciously titled Highly Strung he explores not only the ups and downs of the ASQ but also takes the viewer into the world of Ulrike Klein, an Adelaide arts patron who is in the process of creating a new arts centre on the fringe of the city. As if this generous support of the arts was not enough, Klein also acquires for the ASQ members four priceless instruments, worth millions of dollars, made in Italy in the 18th century by the maestro Giovanni Guadagnini. She also commissions the creation of a new instrument by luthier Roberto Cavagnoli, who begins by scouring the same forest where Guadagnini and Antonio Stradivari sought wood for their instruments.
Back in Adelaide, all is not well. For reasons not clearly explained, Winther and Tache announce their bombshell decision to leave the ASQ, returning their instruments and creating a crisis on the local music scene. It’s a pity Hicks was unable to get any of the principals to talk on camera about what went wrong, as this lack of information leaves a gap in the film.
To compensate, Hicks also introduces us to a family of Americans, the Carpenters, violinists who flaunt their wealth, their lack of dress sense and their Stradivarius instruments. The approach taken by these brash characters towards classical music is strictly commercial, and though their scenes make a striking contrast with those of the more refined music scene in Adelaide, rather too much time is spent with them. On the other hand, there’s a useful contribution from Simon Morris, an erudite London dealer of classical stringed instruments.
Hicks is clearly in love with this world, and we hear plenty of spellbinding classical music. Visually, he opts for a rather jerky camera style and rapid-fire editing that doesn’t always suit the material. Nevertheless, music lovers will find plenty to enjoy in this intriguing film. The End of the Tour is belatedly getting a brief, limited run in Sydney after playing a while back in Melbourne. James Ponsoldt’s film follows Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) during the days he interviewed celebrated author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel).
It’s 1996, and Wallace’s second novel, Infinite Jest, has just been published to rave reviews. Lipsky, himself the author of a novel and a parttime teacher at Illinois State University, persuades his editor to send him to Bloomington, where he finds Wallace living alone with his dogs in a very ordinary-looking house. After some initial reservations, the men bond and the film explores the days they spent together, with Lipsky attempting to pose the sorts of controversial questions his editor requires (including whether Wallace is a heroin addict) and Wallace becoming unexpectedly jealous when Lipsky becomes involved in some innocent banter with one of his female friends.
Strong performances from the lead actors anchor the film, but the world depicted is rather too hermetic for anyone not immediately interested in the subject matter.
Susan Sarandon and JK Simmons in The Meddler, left; Ioana Tache, one of the musicians in Highly Strung, below left; Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, below right