Director: Rebecca Miller
Stars: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore
I’ve been thinking of drawing up bingo cards for the genre staples of the New York indie relationship dramedy. A box full of boxes each one containing a different recognisable trope. The studio apartment. The academic novelist. The charming park bench scene. Piles of books. The funny hipster. Neuroses. The spilled secret. Cardigans. Copious vintage furnishings. Maggie’s Plan, the new film from Rebecca Miller, comes close to achieving a full house. All that’s missing is a Woody Allen cameo.
Which is not to say that Maggie’s Plan is consciously derivative per se, more that it fully embraces its own established ‘type’. We’re comfortably nestled in the arena of first world problems. Most fortunately, we’re nestled there with Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore, among others.
Gerwig leads as the titular Maggie; a woman capable by herself who has decided to enter motherhood in the same fashion, confiding to her best friend Tony (Bill Hader) that she intends to become pregnant via a sperm donor. While in the process of fulfilling this task she meets fellow academic John (Hawke); an expert in the joyously specialised field of ficto-criticial anthropology who is also embarking on a side project as a novelist. John passes Maggie pages from his first chapter to read. She loves them. Their connection rapidly grows.
Cut to a few years later and things have changed remarkably. John has divorced his former wife Georgette (Moore, in mad caricature mode) and he and Maggie are married, have a two-year-old, a larger living space and all of the baggage (and children) from his previous relationship. Yet the shine between the couple has started to wane. Maggie, ever the fixer, comes up with an unusual plan to put everything right.
And so it goes. Miller directs us with appealing pace (for the most part) through a messy interweave of relationships, mocking the absurdities of life and love and how neither conform to our expectations. The tone is light and forgiving, even as the characters cycle through acts both selfish and selfless, and rarely is there any sense of particular jeopardy because rarely does anything seem precious enough to risk losing.
In a way this feels like a reflection of the times we live in, in which lifelong relationships have become scarce enough to seem like the exception rather than the rule. Maggie herself can’t recall being with someone prior to John for longer than 6 months. All of relationships presented feel like a set of interconnected revolving doors, Venn diagrams on tracing paper laid over one another – except, that is, for Tony and his long-term partner Felicia (Maya Rudolph – always a pleasure to see on the screen again).
Hawke plays comfortably within parameters we’ve seen him in before, mixing the neglectful father routine (early parts of Boyhood) with his serious writer guise (Sinister). More dynamic are the female leads. Gerwig’s Maggie is positioned halfway between her prior roles for her real-life partner Noah Baumbach in Frances Ha and Mistress America. She has the spirited charm displayed in the former mixed with the controlling instincts exhibited in the latter. Yet the material here gives her an opportunity to show a wider range and slightly more emotional depth. Moore, meanwhile, initially seems to be playing far too arch as Georgette – the comically uptight European – yet as the film unfolds she becomes more and more pleasing, despite this artifice never really easing. Moore is evidently enjoying herself playing the part, and that crosses the border of the screen.
In fact Maggie’s Plan is such an amiably good time all round that it seems harsh to criticise it for not aiming to achieve more. These characters are enjoyable, but, Maggie aside, they’re all rather sketched in, and the film seems to have little ambition beyond dancing them around one another for 100 minutes. This running time – relatively brief all things considered – also suddenly starts to drag in the film’s third act. After clipping along merrily, Miller gets a shade tangled in the mess she’s created, especially when the film’s conclusion seems forgone for so long. This, though, reflects the less-than-tidy machinations of love and relationships; something the film takes pains to verbalise midway through.
Gerwig continues to shine as a leading lady and the scenes she shares with Moore sparkle the most. Disappointingly, these are few and far between, and out of necessity she disappears almost completely in the film’s middle section. She’s missed here. And while Miller’s script is witty, there’s a nagging sense that a lot of this material may have sounded funnier on the page, save for the deliberately absurd moments that feel almost designed foremost with trailers in mind.
Nevertheless, Maggie’s Plan fulfills its own mandate. It’s pleasing, semi-forgettable fun, masquerading as more substantive intellectual fare. It’s nothing of the kind, of course, but when there seems to be little intention of being remembered this time next year, that’s hardly a crime.
Did someone just yell, “House”?