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