Film Review: Maggie's Plan

Contrived comedy about a single woman with her sights set on motherhood and her interactions with New York academics in a Woody Allen mode garnished with screwball shenanigans.
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Rebecca Miller’s indie comedy Maggie’s Plan has a degree of interest in its shameless aping of early Woody Allen films, from its self-congratulatory New York milieu to its quirky academic protagonists whose heady allusions, pastimes and jargon define them as “intellectuals.” Still, the film never slips into that “us”-vs.-“them” smugness—the hallmark of many Allen films—precisely because, ironically enough, it lacks credibility and humor. Maggie’s Plan suggests, well, a contrived “plan.” Miller’s earlier effort The Private Lives of Pippa Lee was similarly afflicted.

Based on a story by Karen Rinaldi, Miller’s script focuses on Maggie (Greta Gerwig), a single 30-something woman determined to have a child and no longer willing to wait for Mr. Right. She decides to conceive through artificial insemination, tapping an old acquaintance, Guy (Travis Fimmel), for a sperm donation and no further involvement. Evoking an aging hippie in a time warp, Guy is a math genius who makes his living as a pickle entrepreneur. (Subtle this isn’t). Guy offers to provide the service the “old-fashioned way,” but Maggie refuses. In a particularly gross scene, she is spread-eagle in the bathtub, turkey baster in hand, attempting to impregnate herself with his deposit.

Nobody in this story—including Maggie’s two close friends (played by “Saturday Night Live” alumni Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph)—questions the plan’s wisdom or fairness to the unborn child. He/she will be fatherless (addressing that issue would mark them as dinosaurs) and live in squalor, to judge by Maggie’s tiny, cluttered space that can barely accommodate one person and her piles of books. She does not make much money as a career counselor who serves as a liaison between art students and the business world at The New School.

But Maggie’s circumstances change. A central theme here is how life happens (randomly and/or as destiny) while you’re making other “plans.” Maggie meets and falls in love with the wretchedly unhappy John (Ethan Hawke), a onetime “bad boy” in “ficto-critical anthropology” who is now reduced to a non-tenured-track position as an adjunct professor at The New School. He really needs to be working on his novel and doesn’t have the time to do so; he is further demoralized by his high-achieving, condescending Danish-born wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore), a true superstar in ficto-critical anthropology and a tenured professor at Columbia University, where she has just been offered the department chair. (Moore seems to gravitate to playing professors in Morningside Heights. Remember Still Alice?)

To underscore just how intimidating Georgette is, early on in the film she and John are jointly interviewed at an academic symposium (Wallace Shawn is delightful in a cameo role as a pseudo-brainy moderator trying to appear authoritative), where she interrupts and corrects John at every turn. Her slightly nasal Euro accent is a killer. So is her severe appearance: hair tightly pulled back in a bun and her face a waxy and immobilized mask (as if she’s in a permanent state of plastic surgery post-op). Her affectations are comically spot-on. Still, she’s the most complex character here.

John falls into Maggie’s welcoming arms and within short order they are married. Three years later, they have a toddler daughter and are living in a spacious loft. John now spends all his time working on his talent-free opus while Maggie serves as his sympathetic reader. She is also the sole breadwinner in the family and frequently plays stepmom to the two kids—13-year-old Justine and eight-year-old Paul (Mina Sundwall and Jackson Frazer)—John had with Georgette.

Maggie has fallen out of love with John, whom she now views as tedious. His speaking with ex-wife Georgette on a daily basis doesn’t help. Nonetheless, Maggie likes Georgette—she admires her intelligence and independence—and comes up with yet another “plan”: John and Georgette should get back together.

She pitches the idea to Georgette, who justifiably calls the open-faced and earnest Maggie “a little bit stupid.” Georgette is well rid of the needy and philandering John, but confesses her love for John nonetheless—False! False! False!—and ultimately joins forces with her nemesis to concoct a scheme that’ll bring the exes together in a setting that does not include Maggie. Screwball comedy is alive and well. The movie has now wedded Preston Sturges with Woody Allen. The marriage does not work.

This is the plan: A major anthropology convention is slated to take place in a rural retreat outside Quebec. Georgette will attend and land John an invitation to deliver a paper. Unaware of the behind-the-scenes machinations, he is deeply flattered, and more than a little thrilled to have the opportunity to meet psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek at the event.

John and Georgette rekindle their romance at the convention. “No one unpacks commodity fetishism as you do,” Georgette flirts with John. But the turning point occurs on a group hike when John and Georgette find themselves lost and alone in the Canadian woods, a graying sky overhead culminating in a fierce snowstorm. They have only each other to depend on (at the moment and, by extension, forever). As they finally make their way back to the hotel, there’s no doubt what the future has in store.

The acting is faultless. Hawke, who often plays the naughty child-man, nails it. Likewise, no one does assaultive naiveté like Gerwig (think Frances Ha). But here it all rings hollow. Consider the final scene (spoiler alert). Everyone has suffered emotional setbacks and collectively rallied. Holding hands, Georgette, John, Maggie and the three children are ice-skating together. Sperm donor Guy has also arrived at the rink to join the others in a spin.

The camaraderie boding well for what’s to come is hard to swallow. If nothing else, you have to feel sorry for the kids who will grow up in chaos with unstable, narcissistic parents, stepparents—and their assorted like-minded partners—at the helm or, more to the point, not.

Still, the film has its virtues. It’s almost worth the price of admission to check out Maggie’s wonderfully ill-fitting and uncoordinated outfits (kudos to costumer Malgosia Turzanska) that capture the thin line between fashion statement and psychiatric problem.

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