Greta Gerwig is, much like Melissa McCarthy or Seth Rogen, fast becoming an American comedy institution all her own. From Greenberg to Mistress America, films in which Gerwig takes the lead are piercing insights into the awkward transition from your 20s to your 30s, generally heavily featuring New York, and, most importantly, funny without being cold or cruel. It’s been a remarkably successful formula so far, and Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan is no exception, sticking to the key elements that made the earlier films so enjoyable whilst also adding some refreshing maturity to the mix.
Gerwig has been Noah Baumbach’s muse for a good few years now, with Maggie’s Plan probably her highest profile starring role not directed by the mumblecore maestro. Rebecca Miller writes and directs here and the strong female presence behind the scenes is keenly felt. Most notably, Maggie herself (Gerwig) is a capable and independent schemer as well as being a warm and kind presence. This sort of character is far too rarely written for women, with a calculating female lead, especially if she also has a career, most often written as ‘one of the guys’, hating the ideas of family or romantic commitments.
In a lovely twist on that uncomfortable stereotype, it’s Maggie’s desire for a family that drives her to make the first of her two titular plans. Calling upon a college friend, appropriately named Guy (Travis Fimmel), for assistance due to his excellence as a physical specimen, Maggie decides on artificial insemination, as she doesn’t feel that any romantic relationship she could be in would be helpful to raise a child. Naturally, this plan goes awry, thanks to the arrival of the handsome and sensitive John (Ethan Hawke) at the university where Maggie works. John’s marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore affecting a wonderful Scandinavian accent) is falling apart, and his friendship with Maggie suddenly becomes much more.
After the first night of their affair, Miller skips through the next three years entirely. Maggie and John are now married with their own child, but his novel is still unfinished and his continual caretaking of Georgette has left Maggie frustrated and neglected. Thus she hatches the second of her plans, far more complex than the last – getting John and his ex-wife back together. This second half of the film is definitely slightly sillier than the first, but both are gently funny, emotionally compelling, and believable.
Miller’s dialogue is sharp and witty, and brims with life. Throughout the film, she creates a series of different family settings, all of which seem familiar and real. A lesser film would have been thrown by the three year time skip, but forced exposition is kept to a minimum, and information about what has transpired is parcelled out intelligently and naturally. The laughs are not as frequent or as loud as in the year’s best comedies, but Maggie’s Plan is highly entertaining for the entire run time, especially when Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph are on screen. As Maggie’s best friends, Hader and Rudolph are the comedic highlights of the film, whether they’re discussing ficto-critical anthropology or the pain of sitting on one’s own balls.
Gerwig, Hawke, and Moore are predictably excellent as the lead trio. Gerwig continues to cement her place as one of Hollywood’s most vital comedic performers and, even through her thick accent, Moore fleshes out a three-dimensional character, conveying power, vulnerability, pain, and silliness all at the same time. Hawke brings his natural indie charm to John, feeling entirely at home in the role of a cool and respected anthropologist (in a fun touch, the only song that he and his peers seem to listen to is Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’).
In amongst the fun hecticness of the everyday that Miller captures so well is some surprisingly poignant philosophy, the final ingredient in what is already a very enticing film. Some of the reveals towards the end are rather too obviously signposted, but they’re still pulled off satisfyingly, and Maggie’s Plan has already earned so much good will by the conclusion that you’re ready to forgive any final hurdle flaws. In a summer of huge blockbusters proving to be boring duds, it would be a very good idea to seek out this small, enjoyable, and meticulously crafted piece instead.