Imagine a modern screwball comedy starring Jean Arthur and you’re almost there. In Rebecca Miller’s charming Maggie’s Plan, the 2010s’ answer to that aforementioned plucky comic heroine, Greta Gerwig, stars as the titular Maggie, a flighty Columbia university art and design director whose control freak disposition gets her into trouble aplenty over the course of the film’s breezy ninety-eight minutes. When we first meet her, she’s decided to give into the age-old fantasy that her baby craziness can be translated into functional single motherhood. In the matter of a few weeks, she’ll be very much with child — she has a willing donor waiting in the wings (Travis Fimmel), and has no reservations regarding the comprehensively life-changing arrangement.
But then in steps John (Ethan Hawke), a scruffy “fictocritical anthropologist” working on his latest novel. Because his wife, the narcissistic Georgette (Julianne Moore), is a professor at Columbia, too, he repeatedly bumps elbows with Maggie around campus and quickly hits it off with her (though such could merely be the result of his currently rough marriage and the need to have someone to confide in). Since Georgette’s too focused on her own career to really care about the success of John’s newest piece, the latter, finding warmth and openness in Maggie, offers his transcript to her in hopes that she’ll provide the helpful pointers of an everyday reader.
Some time later, John tells Maggie that he’s in love with her. He leaves his family behind, and, before long, is married to the girl who offered him a helping hand not so long ago. Soon, they’re parents to a child, a little girl (Ida Rohatyn) that could also be the product of Maggie’s earlier fertility woes.
Cut to three years after this relatively unconvincing union begins and the two are no longer in the blissful sort of love they were in during their first few months of hush hush courtship. John’s still working on the book that built his and Maggie’s relationship in the first place, and Maggie, to her dismay, is making all the money, is always chauffeuring her stepkids around, and is feeling like this marriage is sapped of the energy it once had. After realizing that even the smallest of an intimate moment is almost loveless in tone — like when she asks John if he wants to hear his horoscope over morning coffee and he flatly rejects the trivial offer — Maggie comes to the conclusion that she wants out.
And yet she’s bothered by the idea of nonchalantly walking away. She figures this marriage has mostly taken on the form of an extended affair. If not for the daughter she’s completely devoted to, she’d be perfectly content pretending as if the last few years never happened. John should have stayed with Georgette, and that’s that.
But what if things could magically work themselves out? What if John returned home to his ex-wife and kids and went on as if nothing ever changed, as if he and Maggie never met? Maggie is besotted by the notion of a life affected by a quasi undo button, and so a lightbulb flickers on in her accidentally manipulative head. Clearly, Georgette is still enamored with John and John needs the never-approving Georgette to fuel his creative fires.
Ambitiously, Maggie makes it her mission to pair up the couple she inadvertently split apart just a few years earlier. Though without a twin by her side, this grown up version of The Parent Trap is bound to be disastrously unhinged, transparent even. But because Maggie’s Plan resembles a madcap Pre-Code farce packaged in twenty-first century wrapping, and because Miller has the good sense to sometimes take trips into the profound that ultimately makes things more peak Woody Allen than Trouble in Paradise era Ernst Lubistch, the film is a romantic comedy with enough emotional heft and enough manneristic humor to enliven its initially dizzy premise.
It’s a screwball comedy with nuance, and that’s what I like best about it. In Maggie’s Plan do we have a storyline fit for any Carole Lombard collaboration. But while the laughs are frequent and the stars are as amiable as anyone you’d find frequenting Grauman’s Chinese Theatre circa 1936, the decidedly un-pretty setbacks and happenstances that come along with setting off a plot as asinine as Maggie’s are as three-dimensionally present as the movie’s agreeability is. It’s escapist fare expected to be vapid that proves to be giving.
But when you have Gerwig, the indie extraordinaire that could be a movie star if she weren’t so fond of headlining limited releases, carrying a film with an unsurprisingly fantastic Moore and a solidly at-a-crossroads Hawke, fruition is a given. Kudos, however, goes to Miller for concocting a rom-com of perceptive wit and welcome subversion. The stars could be doing most of the heavy lifting, but with Miller as captain of the ship, anyone could comprise the ensemble and we’d still certainly have something special. B+