Friday, June 17, 2016

Maggie's Plan: The best-laid schemes...

Maggie's Plan (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

God must chuckle over how we mortals keep screwing up our own lives.

We fret, we fuss; we second-guess ourselves; we concoct absurdly elaborate schemes designed to accomplish this or that, but which invariably fail; we rebound with even more ludicrous counter-schemes.

When Maggie (Greta Gerwig, left) realizes that she has made a mistake by marrying John,
she concocts an unlikely scheme to re-unite him with ex-wife Georgette (Julianne Moore).
That's assuming, of course, that Georgette even wants him back...
If we’d simply relax and get out of our own way, letting nature take its course, we’d likely be much more pleased with the results.

Writer/director Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan has great fun with this notion. The indie filmmaker’s endearing romantic comedy — based on a story by Karen Rinaldi — also is another fine showcase for steadily rising star Greta Gerwig. The angst-riddled characters and New York setting make comparisons to Woody Allen inevitable, although Miller’s focus is female-centric; she’s also better — more organic — at skewering the pretentious affectations that make her characters so frequently sound like recently arrived visitors from Jupiter.

I’ve often felt that Allen’s gibes at Manhattan pomposity are made at the expense of his characters; the tone feels snooty. Miller, in great contrast, clearly sympathizes with her protagonists, even as she exposes their narcissism; it feels more like Miller is ruefully shaking her head, hoping that we’ll learn by this gentler — but still quite funny — example.

Maggie Hardin (Gerwig) wants to have a baby. Desperately. But she’s unwilling to take the conventional approach, given a track record of relationships that have lasted no more than six months. Artificial insemination therefore seems the best route, and Maggie has selected a slightly off-kilter, former college acquaintance (Travis Fimmel, as Guy) who abandoned a mathematics degree in favor of becoming a pickle entrepreneur.

Despite the decision having been made, Maggie remains conflicted. She shares her doubts with a personal Greek chorus: longtime best friend Tony (Bill Hader) and his wife, Felicia (Maya Rudolph). He’s a lawyer; she and Maggie are work colleagues at The New School, in Greenwich Village. Although Tony and Felicia are a bit crusty with each other, theirs is a loving and successful relationship, and they also care deeply about Maggie ... even if they frequently fail to understand her.

Maggie’s chance encounter with New School part-time teacher John Harding (Ethan Hawke) leads to a fast friendship. They spark: He’s a frustrated debut novelist trying to find his voice; she’s an eager and sympathetic reader. The bond deepens, and that’s a problem; John is married to Georgette (Julianne Moore), and they have two children.

John and Georgette have a complicated dynamic, both having overdosed on university degrees while skipping the day that common sense was passed out. She’s a hyper-competitive, self-absorbed Danish academic; he’s a “ficto-critical anthropologist” who teaches classes with unlikely titles such as “Masks in the Modern Family, from Victorian Times to the Present” and “Fictocritical Perspectives of Family Dynamics.”

If you get a sense that Miller is poking fun at stuffy academics, you’re absolutely correct. In a film laden with tart one-liners and droll conversations, nothing is funnier than a panel — unsuccessfully kept in check by a helpless moderator (Wallace Shawn, in a hilariously flustered cameo) — that finds John and Georgette arguing two sides of some deranged scholarly thesis.

Trouble is, John can’t control his own family dynamic. Georgette is perfectly content, since she rules the roost. But John is unhappy, and therefore ripe for the spontaneous affair that explodes with Maggie.

Two years later, Maggie and John are married, with an adorable toddler daughter (Lily, played to cute-as-a-bug perfection by little Ida Rohatyn). Georgette, divorced and bitter, has mined the experience in a tell-all book. John’s novel, in contrast, keeps getting longer, the finish line receding at an even faster rate.

And Maggie, bless her, begins to realize that John is taking advantage of her good nature. Worse yet, he spends hours — every day — chatting with Georgette on the phone. He doesn’t mean anything by it, he insists; after all, they’re still co-parenting two growing children.

Maggie therefore conspires to bump into Georgette at a book-signing, acting on a half-baked notion: Would it be possible to maneuver John and Georgette into reuniting?

This plot is vintage Hollywood screwball comedy; we’ve seen it done by the likes of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, in classics such as 1937’s The Awful Truth. But Miller’s execution is rigorously earthy and contemporary, up to and including Maggie’s wincingly explicit efforts to, ah, maneuver a plastic syringe filled with ejaculate: a sequence that is simultaneously funny, gross and embarrassing. (Gerwig is such a good sport!)

It has been quite entertaining to watch Gerwig develop her endearingly flustered, conflicted and (gently) victimized persona through a series of films: Lola Versus, Frances Ha and Mistress America. She finally nails it here, giving Maggie all the best and most interesting character tics of the women in those earlier films, while downplaying the elements that didn’t quite work. (I’m most grateful for the fact that she abandoned the raging alcoholism that was so unappealing; Maggie drinks nothing more than an occasional glass of wine.)

Additionally, Gerwig is simply fun to observe; she has a way with quirky expressions and double-takes, all of which feel absolutely natural, while serving as excellent shorthand cues to her characters. Watch how she silently catches herself and tosses her head, during one of Maggie’s early conversations with John; it’s so spontaneous, so natural, that it transcends acting.

Moore, equally drawn to eccentric characters, is a hoot as Georgette. The woman is a pretentious snot to begin with, and it’s even funnier with Moore’s affected Danish accent; it feels like she’s channeling Greta Garbo, but of course Georgette doesn’t want to be left alone. That’s what makes her sympathetic, despite such a chilly, prickly exterior; Georgette has a softer side, which Moore displays subtly, but just enough.

It’s also amusing that the Danish Georgette is utterly hapless in winter settings, whether attempting to ice skate or hike through deep snow.

Hawke has a harder job, since John’s indecisive nature makes him somewhat unlikable. He does take advantage; we forgive this only because his self-absorption is unconscious and instinctive, rather than the result of malice. In a cast laden with characters who simply don’t know themselves very well, he’s definitely the most clueless. Hawke gets credit for making John even faintly sympathetic, but he’s far from warm and fuzzy.

Hader and Rudolph, both masters of comic timing, are a hoot. Miller wisely uses them sparingly, otherwise they’d easily overwhelm the story. Fimmel, finally, is equally amusing as the scruffy Guy, who always seems to be one response ahead (or behind) in a given conversation.

The locations are rigorously New York, and production designer Alexandra Schaller has a lot of fun with the various sets. Maggie’s initial studio apartment is particularly amusing: a central room just large enough for a bed, with piles of books stacked against the walls, and a closet-sized kitchen and bathroom. (With most people, I’d regard so many books as a pretentious decoration ... but I’m certain Maggie has read them all.)

Maggie’s Plan isn’t for all tastes; I suspect its charms will be lost in great swaths of the American heartland. But as an alternative to summer’s brainless, noisy popcorn flicks, it’s just what the doctor ordered.

Even if the doctor sounds, and behaves, a bit like Woody Allen.

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