Mag­gie’s Plan

MAG­GIE’S PLAN, com­edy, rated R, Vi­o­let Crown, 2.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Jonathan Richards

The Golden Age of screw­ball com­edy gave us movies like Bring­ing Up Baby (1938) and My Man God­frey (1936) and ac­tresses like Katharine Hep­burn and Ca­role Lom­bard, who made them sparkle. In our own time, the ba­ton has been passed to the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Schumer, who, if they don’t al­ways turn up in en­dur­ing ve­hi­cles, at least are equipped with that light­ness of foot and wit that can brighten a screen and a scene. Peo­ple keep try­ing to hand that ba­ton to Greta Ger­wig (Frances Ha, Mis­tress Amer­ica), and it has never seemed a re­ally com­fort­able fit. She doesn’t show the nim­ble dex­ter­ity that keeps the screw­ball in the air. Ger­wig has tal­ent, but it feels like the too-quirky sort that wears out its wel­come early (think Sandy Den­nis). Writer-di­rec­tor Re­becca Miller has built Mag­gie’s Plan (adapted from a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal story by Karen Ri­naldi) around the char­ac­ter of Mag­gie Hardin (Ger­wig), a thirty-ish New York col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tor who plans and plans — and dis­cov­ers that even the best-laid plans, not to men­tion those not so well-laid, can oft go astray.

Her first plan is to have a baby. As she’s never been able to keep a re­la­tion­ship go­ing for more than six months, she de­cides to go the con­cep­tion route alone. She se­cures a sperm do­na­tion from a for­mer col­lege friend (Travis Fim­mel), a math geek turned pickle en­trepreneur. But ro­mance in­trudes in the form of John Hard­ing (Ethan Hawke), a col­lege pro­fes­sor (with a rep­u­ta­tion as “one of the bad boys of ficto-crit­i­cal an­thro­pol­ogy”) and as­pir­ing nov­el­ist. The sim­i­lar­ity of Mag­gie’s and John’s last names is the con­trived ve­hi­cle for their meet­ing. John is mar­ried, with two chil­dren, to the high-pow­ered in­tel­lec­tual Dan­ish au­thor Geor­gette (Ju­lianne Moore); but she doesn’t un­der­stand him, at least not in the way he would like to be un­der­stood. Mag­gie does, or pro­fesses to. Just as Mag­gie’s wield­ing the turkey baster to jump-start her preg­nancy, John turns up at the door, and sparks fly. Mag­gie and John go at it the old-fash­ioned way, and a baby is con­ceived.

Jump, a lit­tle abruptly, to three years later. Mag­gie and John have an adorable, scene-steal­ing tod­dler but not much of a marriage. Truth to tell, their re­la­tion­ship wasn’t built on a firm foundation. She stroked his ego by read­ing and prais­ing his man­u­script, which she de­scribes as “screw­ball sur­re­al­ism.” He hasn’t made much progress on it, but he uses it to re­in­force his ge­nius sta­tus and evade his house­hold re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Marriage hasn’t worked out as Mag­gie planned. So she makes another plan. Af­ter talk­ing it over with her best friends Tony and Feli­cia (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph), she con­cocts a new plan: She will ex­tri­cate her­self from the marriage by en­gi­neer­ing a re­u­nion be­tween her hus­band and Geor­gette, the ex-wife from whom she pil­fered him.

The new scheme doesn’t work out much bet­ter than the old one. Mag­gie is a con­trol freak with poor con­trol. “I’ve made a big mess,” she con­fesses to Tony, and it’s no over­state­ment. But the end brings a nice twist that you might have seen com­ing — if you were pay­ing at­ten­tion.

Miller has some fun with mod­ern re­la­tion­ships, mod­ern marriage, and the foibles of the aca­demic world. But for screw­ball com­edy to work, the char­ac­ters have to be lik­able, and sad to say, there’s not much to like in this lot. John is breezily charm­ing but ir­ri­tat­ingly self-cen­tered. Mag­gie has sweet­ness but not much spark. As she be­gins her cam­paign to in­gra­ti­ate her­self with Geor­gette in or­der to get her to take John off her hands, the two women find them­selves un­ex­pect­edly hit­ting it off, in spite of the fact that Mag­gie has fig­ured largely in Geor­gette’s lat­est book, a mem­oir about the breakup of her marriage. Geor­gette, rather as­tutely, says to Mag­gie, “There’s some­thing so pure about you — and a lit­tle bit stupid.” Geor­gette, for all her chilly abra­sive­ness and comic opera accent, may be the most sym­pa­thetic of the prin­ci­pals, and she’s cer­tainly the most in­ter­est­ing. Hader and Rudolph add ap­peal, but they’re pretty much rel­e­gated to the side­lines.

Miller has made her way up un­til now pri­mar­ily in drama, with movies like The Bal­lad of Jack and Rose (2005) and the un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated The Pri­vate Lives

of Pippa Lee (2009). Com­edy may not be her strong­est suit (come to think of it, her fa­ther, play­wright Arthur Miller, wasn’t much of a laugh ma­chine ei­ther).

Mag­gie’s Plan is pitched in the Woody Allen-es­que, ur­ban-neu­rotic rom-com vein, but al­though it has some amus­ing mo­ments, it doesn’t rise to that level. Still, stocked as it is with tal­ent on and off the screen, the movie is not a big mess. But it could have used a bet­ter plan.

Feel­ing Hawke-ish? Greta Ger­wig and Ethan Hawke

Re­ac­tion shots: Ju­lianne Moore and Maya Rudolph

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