Maggie 's plan to have a baby on her own is derailed when she falls in love with John, a married man, destroying his volatile marriage to the brilliant and impossible Georgette. But one daughter and three years later, Maggie is out of love and in a quandary: what do you do when you suspect your man and his ex-wife are actually perfect for each other?
A film starring indie darling Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress America) comes with certain expectations: a kooky-cool heroine will make a mess of things, remaining wistfully adorable in a shabby-chic New York locale. Maggie’s Plan, an utterly delightful screwball comedy, absolutely delivers this kind of Gerwig character. The film is even lensed in warm naturalistic tones by frequent Gerwig/Baumbach DOP Sam Levy. But this film manages to take Gerwig’s familiar-seeming character type into the refreshingly new adult territory of marriage, motherhood and shared custody arrangements. Like the best relationship comedies, it’s light and frothy on top, only hinting at the dark, bittersweet brew beneath.
Maggie (Gerwig) is a thirty-something careers advisor at a New York college. She’s remarkably practical. A calm and methodical worker, brought up as a thoughtful Quaker, she’s good at providing ‘a bridge between art and commerce’. But her private life is a failure. Unable to maintain romantic relationships, she confides in her best friends, married couple Tony and Felicia (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph, who have wonderful rapport), about her plans to have a baby using a sperm donor. Maggie has found an old college classmate, Guy (Australian actor Travis Fimmel, best known for Vikings), who’ll give her the goods in a jar. He’s a sweet eccentric, complete with a scruffy beard and his own business making ‘artisan pickles’. (Yes, it’s that kind of world we’re inhabiting.) Tony and Felicia worry about the child inheriting Guy’s close-talking tendencies (Seinfeld moment!), but as Maggie reasons, everyone has genetic deficiencies.
Back at work, she meets slightly downtrodden sessional academic, John (Ethan Hawke), a man with a reputation as ‘the bad boy of ficto-critical anthropology’. His brilliant Danish wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore with a ridiculous, hilarious accent) has ‘tenure at Columbia’ and is by far the brighter bird of the pairing. Neglected and professionally frustrated because he’s had to raise their two kids, John’s struggling to write a novel in his spare time. Maggie provides just the sympathetic ear he needs, and they promptly fall in love.
Several years later, we revisit them, married with a small child, and part-time custody of his older children. Maggie is running ragged, juggling work and singlehandedly keeping the household afloat, while John’s still faffing around with his novel and lolling in a hammock. Maggie falls upon an escape plan. Why not give him back to his ex-wife, who’s looking more perfect for him by the minute?
Writer and director Rebecca Miller’s previous four films (Angela, Personal Velocity, The Ballad of Jack and Rose and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) have all tended towards agonised dramatics. Here, adapting an unpublished novel by Karen Rinaldi, Miller proves adept at her first comedy. She’s assisted by a trio of superb lead actors who never lose our sympathy, even when they’re verging on monstrous. Hawke walks the fine line between loathsome and pitiable, while Moore depicts a European ice-queen (always dressed in fur and feathers) who’s vulnerable deep down. After spending years hating the younger woman for stealing her husband, and even writing a memoir about the humiliation (entitled Bring Back the Geisha no less) Georgette comes around to Maggie’s virtues. ‘You’re a funny person,’ she tells her with clipped diction. ‘There’s something very pure about you — and a little bit stupid. Yet I can’t help it. I like you,’ – words that that could very well sum up the entire film.
Miller says in the press notes for Maggie’s Plan: ‘I gave in to my desire to make people happy with a film.’ It’s a good thing she did because there’s a dearth of great adult comedies right now, ones which deal with the complexities of modern mating and child-rearing. Like the best of those American romantic comedies of remarriage from the 1930s and '40s – and like the Woody Allen movies we wish he’d make again – this one makes serious matters feel light. It makes the audience think it’s smart, while reassuring them that matters of the heart will always elude logic.
Watch 'Maggie's Plan'
Wednesday 8 September, 9:40pm on SBS World Movies / No catch-up at SBS On Demand
Director: Rebecca Miller
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Julianne Moore, Ethan Hawke, Bill Hader