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Review: “Viva,” “The Meddler” succeed on their own terms in unexpected ways

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He’s a willowy slip of a thing, the young man known as Jesus (Héctor Medina). As he drifts through the slummier alleys of Havana, he’s like a ghost — blanched to near-invisibility by the tropical sunlight. So it makes sense that he craves to pop more brightly, to be seen, under the artificial lights of the local gay bar, under artificial wigs and costume jewelry and bearing the false name that gives this lovely movie its title: Viva.

A fascinating cultural hybrid, this is an Irish film shot in Cuba, in Spanish. Which maybe just underlines this fact: a story about longing, loss, aspiration and connection can travel to or from any country on our planet.

Jesus styles the hair of old widows who can’t afford to pay him and, as a side job, maintains the wigs of the reigning queen at the drag bar, Mama (Luis Alberto García, fierce, loving and spot-on). When Mama is auditioning for new lip-synch talent, Jesus turns up — to the loving derision of the hardened performers who know him as just the wig boy.

Even Mama questions why this shy young man wants to throw himself into the shark tank of live performance.

“It’s strong. It’s pretty — right?” Jesus says. More to the point, without a lover, a decent job, or family, he says, “I got nothing for myself.” Performing as Viva might be a compensation for everything he doesn’t have.

The sad news is, he’s pretty lousy — hesitant and self-conscious — when he steps onstage for the first time. Things get even worse, later, when his performance gets interrupted by an unlikely revenant: Angel (Jorge Perugorría), the super-macho, super-alcoholic former boxer who gave birth to Jesus but disappeared into prison when his son was just a toddler.

Angel crashes in the family apartment where Jesus has lived alone for years, and forbids his son from performing at the club, or even tending to Mama’s wigs. Instead, they live uncomfortably together on the money Jesus gets from the old ladies, and also (unbeknownst to Angel) from gay tourists hunting the parks, looking to bag and bed some local wildlife.

Written by Irish actor Mark O’Halloran (who has a small role as one of those tourists), Viva features a fairly predictable script. Surprisingly, that works in the movie’s favor. The conventional narrative grounds us in the unfamiliar, sometimes squalid corners of Cuba and (for some viewers) the exotic environs of the drag club.

At times, you wish the movie spent more of its scenes there, among the colorful, funny queens. By the end, though, you appreciate director Breathnach’s restraint. He judiciously doles out our visits to the bar. Then he brings the emotional hammer down three times in the last half hour — showcasing the power of performance for Jesus/Viva as a proud, tear-filled aria of love and defiance to a world that would dare to try to keep him down. Good luck not being knocked out by the ending.

Also opening this week is The Meddler, a movie with a name and trailer that are misleading, but in a good way. It’s a better movie than you’d expect.

“Anyway,” Marnie (Susan Sarandon) says before launching into the first of many run-on voicemails she leaves on her daughter Lori’s phone. Lori (Rose Byrne), a neurotic, ambitious scriptwriter, has stopped answering those voicemails. She’s also getting worn down by mom’s unannounced appearances at her doorstep, armed down with a bag of bagels and lots of advice.

We learn that both women are undergoing big changes. Lori is getting over a painful breakup with action star Jacob (Jason Ritter), while Marnie is a fairly recent arrival in Los Angeles. Born in Brooklyn (with a honking accent to match), she has left her Jersey home following the death of her Italian-American husband, who left her well off. Unemployed and residing in a condo near the tacky outdoor mall The Grove (“It’s like living on Main Street in Disneyland!”), she leans on Lori to fill her newly empty hours.

Susan Sarandon, left, and Rose Byrne play a mother and daughter in The Meddler.
Susan Sarandon, left, and Rose Byrne play a mother and daughter in The Meddler.

But as the movie unreels, it quickly becomes clear that Meddler isn’t the broad, wacky-mom-and-workaholic-daughter comedy that its advertising suggests.  In fact, Lori vanishes for the middle section of the story, heading to New York to shoot a TV pilot. That means Marnie has to find things to do — and introduce more people to her particular brand of sunny, talkative generosity.

She springs for the wedding of Lori’s pal Jillian (SNL’s Cecily Strong), half of a lesbian couple with a toddler who needs babysitting; befriends an Apple Store employee (Jerrod Carmichael) and urges him to return to night school; and sits bedside with a mute old woman no one seems to care for in the hospital. As the comic scenes pile up, though, it grows clear that all this cheery, busy activity is masking a grief Marnie hasn’t yet faced.

That reckoning comes closer when she meets Zipper (J.K. Simmons), the movie’s one miscalculation. He’s an ex-cop, rides a Harley, plays Dolly Parton records for his roost of chickens, and plays a guitar. He’s the sort of cutesy, middle-aged dreamboat you only find in screenplays; you have to give Simmons immense credit for making him semi-plausible. Of course, he’s got a good foil in Sarandon, who deftly knits together the movie’s shifting moods, from physical comedy to subtle, devastating glimpses of grief. She’s terrific.

The movie is pretty good, too. And it’s that Hollywood unicorn: one that’s made by a woman. After watching this affectionate, aggravated portrait of Marnie and her daughter, you won’t be surprised to learn that writer-director Lorene Scafaria admits the movie is autobiographical. You sense she’s lived every mother-loving minute of it. It’s a shame the marketing folks at Sony Pictures Classics didn’t realize what they had on their hands a couple of weeks earlier — a perfect release for Mother’s Day.

Viva. With Héctor Medina, Jorge Perugorría, Luis Alberto García. Directed by Paddy Breathnach. Rated R for language throughout, sexual content and brief graphic nudity. 100 minutes. In Spanish with subtitles. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

The Meddler. With Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria. Rated PG-13. 100 minutes. At metro theaters.

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