Movie Review: Maggie's Plan

Romantic comedy puts Ethan Hawke in the middle of good intentions

Maggie's Plan
Directed by Rebecca Miller
With Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Travis Fimmel, Wallace Shawn, Ida Rohatyn, Julianne Moore

Screwball comedies centered around relationships in New York City had their heyday in the late 1970s, so Maggie's Plan has a bit of as retro feel. Even the musical score at times has a hint of nostalgia.

The title character Maggie, played by Greta Gerwig, wants to have a baby but doesn't want to be in a relationship. Or she does, but can't seem to make them last. She marches to her own drummer, which gives her lots of cute personality quirks. Her original plan is to get a child by having a friend donate sperm. The friend, more accurately an old acquaintance, was a potentially brilliant mathematician who gave it up to start a hipster-style craft pickle factory. She finds him oddly charming but doesn't want to actually date him.

Maggie, however, soon runs into John, a ficto-critical anthropologist played by Ethan Hawke, when their paychecks get mixed up. Ficto-critical anthropology is some sort of postmodern field that allows John to sound very intelligent while talking about common trends in culture. The word “fetish” comes up a lot.

The main problem is that John is married to a much more successful university professor named Georgette, played by Julianne Moore with a thick Scandinavian accent.

Maggie likes to be very organized and supportive, while Georgette is manically domineering. John finds himself caught between them when Maggie starts to encourage John's fiction writing.

The plot itself isn't what drives the film. Each of the characters has a bizarre set of peculiar traits. Julianne Moore plays hers for broad comic relief, while the others are a bit more restrained.

Maggie also has a friend and confidant, Tony, played by Bill Hader of Saturday Night Live. Tony functions solely to give Maggie someone to explain the plot to.

The plan referred to in the title isn't having the pickle man's baby, which comes up fairly early, but something much more all encompassing — so much so that even the hyper-controlling Georgette is impressed.

Writer and director Rebecca Miller, using a story by Karen Rinaldi, brings together a lot of elements that people used to find in Woody Allen's films in the Annie Hall to Hannah and Her Sisters era, only with the focus on a female character as the lead. Otherwise there are the wacky relationship problems, jazzy music, Lower Manhattan settings, witty and slightly sarcastic dialogue, intellectual references, and a careful mix of drama with humor.

Miller is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and photographer Inge Morath. Her previous films were much more serious but always focused on a strong central female character. She seems to have found her strength in comedy, though. The female roles are funny without making women the butt of demeaning jokes. Even Georgette, despite her strictness, is successful and is more than just a one-dimensional character.

Greta Gerwig got her start in low-budget independent films and for most people will be a fresh face. She has a natural talent for humor and doesn't seem to be acting in the role of someone with a Quaker background who has moved to the big city.
Her character doesn't come off as being in the wrong, even though John is married with children when they meet. Likewise Georgette doesn't come off as the wronged woman, as she hardly seems injured by events — in fact she strives on her victim status so much that she writes a best-selling book about it.

Julianne Moore is quite an accomplished actress who worked with Rebecca Miller before in 2009 in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. She also is better-known for serious films, but seems to have a good time doing a bit of a heavy-handed caricature of a strident intellectual.

Caught in the middle, Ethan Hawke brings some of his boyish charm from 1995's Before Sunrise. He is one of the finest actors around, and creates a character who while at times brilliant is also a space cadet who needs looking after. Being mad at him would be like being mad at a puppy.

The end result keeps the attention of the audience, as none of the characters are painted as people who deserve the short end of the stick, and yet somehow all of the romantic plots need to be resolved satisfactorily.

While there is that feeling of a female-style Woody Allen comedy, that is not to say the film is a stylistic ripoff. The perspective is different, and even though there are some similarities in approach, Miller is much more subtle.

The film also remains funny without sinking to the lowest common denominator, which for an American comedy is rare these days.

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