Monday, August 29, 2016

Movie Review: Maggie's Plan

Maggie’s Plan
Directed by: Rebecca Miller.
Written by: Rebecca Miller based on the story by Karen Rinaldi.
Starring: Greta Gerwig (Maggie), Ethan Hawke (John Harding), Bill Hader (Tony), Maya Rudolph (Felicia), Julianne Moore (Georgette), Wallace Shawn (Kliegler), Travis Fimmel (Guy Childers), Mina Sundwall (Justine), Jackson Frazer (Paul).
Rebecca Miller is a talented writer/director, whose films previous to Maggie’s Plan tell the type of stories that we usually do not see on the screen. Personal Velocity (2002) is three stories about women trying to escape their dysfunctional lives, and the men who are oppressing them in some way. The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005), is about the strange relationship between an aging hippie (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his teenage daughter that has become dangerously close and destructive. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)- and adapted from her own novel), is about a middle aged woman on the verge of a mental breakdown, when her much older husband moves into an retirement home, taking her with him. None of those films were perfect – but they presented interesting, flawed characters and allowed them to be themselves on screen – with all the messiness required. With Maggie’s Plan, Miller moves into the comic terrain of Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach – about the neurosis of New York Academics – and she never quite manages to find the right tone for the film. This is essentially a screwball comedy drained of all its energy, as if Miller wanted to make a more realistic film with a screwball plot. It’s an interesting choice – but one that doesn’t really work.
The film stars Greta Gerwig as Maggie – who work at The New School in New York, helping connect art students with the real world, and it’s a job she’s good at. She is, however, single and wants to have a child – and decides the best way to do that is to get a sperm sample from an old college friend, Guy (Travis Fimmel), and impregnate herself. At the same time though, she meets John Harding (Ethan Hawke) – a professor in ficto-critical anthropology (whatever the hell that is), and falls in love with him when he shows her his unfinished novel – which is essentially about his unhappy marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore) – a brilliant Danish academic. Flash forward three years, John and Maggie are now married, have a daughter, and he’s still working on that novel. She juggles her job, her daughter, and John and Georgette’s two kids, and is unhappy as ever – despite how much she says she loves her daughter (we have no reason to not believe her on this count – but the daughter is really treated as an afterthought by the movie). She starts to believe than John and Georgette never should gotten divorced anyway – they are still dependent on each other – and hatches a plan to get them back together.
I imagine a movie where this plot works, and it’s basically a 1930s screwball comedy with Jean Arthur as Maggie, Cary Grant as John and Katherine Hepburn as Georgette, and directed by Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks. Maggie isn’t really a realistic character, but she’s close enough to Gerwig’s wheelhouse, that she does a good enough job of making us like her (at least until you start thinking about what she does). Ethan Hawke doesn’t seem to fit as John – I’ve never thought of Hawke as funny, and he kind of proves why here – he’s too serious to find the humor in even the most insane things. Julianne Moore is a riot as Georgette – I imagine a meeting between her and Miller where Moore agrees to do the movie, but only if she can use a ridiculous Danish accent, because really, there is no reason other than comic effect for it. I like Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph, as a married couple who are friends with Maggie, who seem to have a whole different, complex, contentious marriage between them, that only comes out by accident (make a movie about those two, and I’m in).
For me, I could never settle into the tone of the film – never get on its wavelength, because I think Miller misjudges the tone. This is a silly plot, and much of the dialogue is clever, and should be funnier, but Miller damps down that comic tone. Gerwig is one of the most talented comic actresses of her generation – often making us like her characters, no matter how screwed up they may be – like in the films she has made with Noah Baumbach – Greenberg, Frances Ha and Mistress America. Here though, she’s more of a run of the mill, shallow, hipster navel gazer – who seemingly has no idea what she wants or why she wants it. The movie has a strange flow to it – or should I say lack of flow, as scenes seem to be awkwardly placed next to each other. Miller remains a talented writer/director – I look forward to whatever she has in store (and hope it won’t take 7 years to get it) – but here, the tone seems misjudged, and the film doesn’t seem to be in Miller’s wheelhouse. For me, the film just doesn’t work.

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