Rebecca Miller’s latest feature, ‘Maggie’s Plan’, is one of those awkward romantic comedies. Although new to the filmmaker, whose somewhat sporadic career has typically been defined by drama, it certainly won’t feel unfamiliar to audiences. It’s the sort of neurotic Manhattan rom-com that Woody Allen invented and the likes of Noah Baumbach have continued for years.
Based on the cast and the rambling screwball structure, you might even find yourself surprised not to see the name of Baumbach or one of the many other Woody disciples fill the screen when the credits roll. However, working within what has essentially become its own genre of well-dressed and even better spoken New York intellectual types struggling through life and love, Miller has delivered something cute and effective, if not exactly groundbreaking.
Greta Gerwig stars as a Greta Gerwig type. Her Maggie is a wayward thirty-something working in administration at The New School. She’s uncertain about life or love, but at least somewhat optimistic in her uncertainty. She opens the story with a plan to have a child with the owner of a gourmet Brooklyn pickle company (Travis Fimmel). However, she in no way intends to share parenting duties or even bodily fluids. She just wants the kid. Things get complicated when she meets a semi-employed academic Named John (Ethan Hawke) with dreams of being a novelist. He gives Maggie a chapter of his new book to read. She loves it. He loves that she loves it. She falls in love with him and he falls in love with her loving him. Fast forward a few years and they’re living in an apartment with his children and their toddler, while he’s still plugging away on the book and she supports him. Maggie has had enough and hatches a new plan to reunite John with his ex-wife (Julianne Moore), who recently wrote an academic treatise on their affair and is clearly not over her marriage.
Essentially, the movie falls halfway between a modern Manhattan rom-com and an old-fashioned screwball comedy where love can be forced through setting and slapstick. It has endless scenes of Gerwig walking down city streets exchanging exposition with either Hawke or her best friend (Bill Hader, surprisingly subdued) masked as witty repartee. Then come screwball scenes where the audience knows just enough information more than the characters do to giggle away as mistakes pile up into romantic entanglements. Miller bounces nimbly between the two styles, the cast works well, and there are plenty of smiles and chuckles to be had. At best, ‘Maggie’s Plan’ works like a well-oiled machine operating on the back of sophisticated American comedy history. At worst, it feels more like a handful of Xeroxed scenes from other movies crammed together and claiming to be something new.
Fortunately, the performances never prove disappointing. Hawke is always delightful as an intellectual doofus too lost in his own head to notice reality and does that trick again here. ‘SNL’ vets Bill Hader and Maya Rudolf find themselves stuck with “Basil Exposition” roles as Gerwig’s closest (and only?) friends, but are able to elevate comedic life into the most dryly written characters with ease. Gerwig is Gerwig, the actress that the word “adorkable” was invented for even though it was immediately attributed to someone else. Her all-elbows performance is as delightful and charming as always, even if it’s starting to feel slightly played out. (The damaged twist on this type that she played last year in ‘Mistress America’ was far better.)
Even so, the movie is consistently stolen away from everyone else by Julianne Moore. Armed with a ludicrous accent and hilariously shapeless academic attire, she looks like a cartoon character and plays it big like one too (often recalling her pitch-perfect sense of absurdity in ‘The Big Lebowski’). At the same time, she’s also just too strong an actress to only play a single note, so she finds some sort of humanity within her walking parody in a way that makes it impossible to tear your eyes from her.
With a cast that strong, obviously ‘Maggie’s Plan’ has some joy to spread. It’s frequently quite funny and the tightly wound screwball structure that Rebecca Miller employs offers a certain sense of clockwork satisfaction. However, something about the movie just never quite soars. It has a been-there-done-that quality, even when Miller pokes into psychologically complex places when assigning guilt on her characters. The visuals are a little flat and even more clichéd to this brand of New York comedy. It’s not a particularly special movie, but it’s a fun one executed with talent and sophistication, and will please the type of viewer inclined to seek it out. ‘Maggie’s Plan’ might be a very generic form of high-end comedy, but at least it’s generic in a way that delivers rather than disappoints.