What happens when you realise your husband is perfect for his ex-wife? In Rebecca Miller’s screwball New York romcom Maggie’s Plan, life doesn’t always turn out as you expect.
Life happensby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In the opening scene of Maggie’s Plan, Maggie (Greta Gerwig in kooky, frumpy clothes, like a grown-up and much more organised version of her role in Frances Ha), helps a blind man across the road. Now we’re on her side, she’s a good person even though she’s about to steal somebody’s husband. Compressing a lot of information into the same scene, she and her best friend Tony (Bill Hader, Other People, The Skeleton Twins) meet at the outdoor market she’s headed to and pitch straight into a conversation about her plan to have a baby as a single mother. She’s all set up with a sperm donor – old university friend Guy (Travis Fimmel, unrecognisably hipster-bearded and in a trapper hat), who’s a maths genius and now a self-styled pickle entrepreneur, who she will allow no further involvement. Maggie is controlling yet also in a strange way innocent.
Fate intervenes in her plan when a chance mix-up at the college where she is an adminstrator brings her and lecturer John (Ethan Hawke) together. He’s big in the field of ficto-critical anthropology – a subject that’s both real and absurd. He’s married to fellow academic Georgette (Julianne Moore, playing a comic contrast to her tragic role in Still Alice) but he’s trying to write a novel and he feels she’s destroying him. John and Maggie fall in love.
Miller, whose previous films include The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and Personal Velocity, both, like this, adaptations) doesn’t show any more of their developing relationship, but cuts and leaps straight to three years on, where they’re married and have a child of their own. Maggie now has everything she wanted – a baby, a nice house, a husband (plus his two children now living with them). But marriage isn’t what she expected. She’s immersed in organising a hectic domestic life, prioritising John’s work schedule to the detriment of her own, and mired in doing school runs for her fractious step-children as well as her own baby, whom she loves. She’s become just a facilitator for other people’s lives and she thinks she’s falling out of love. There’s a lovely scene of ennui as they sit up in bed together.
She meets Georgette for the first time at her new book signing. She’s Danish, a professor at Columbia University. Being European and not American means she has a different point of view and she’s hard to fathom. Moore revels in the comic possibilities of the role, with a harsh accent, oversized fluffy tops, terrifying bluntness, intellectual arrogance and apparent lack of emotion or bitterness. Maggie immediately sees how much better suited Georgette is to John than she is.
In fact, Maggie’s Plan should more accurately be ‘plans’, because, in a subversive twist to a romcom, Maggie comes up with a second plan to get Georgette and John back together. She bizarrely explains her idea to Georgette, who initially ridicules her motives, but then decides “I’m in!”. Surprisingly, the two of them get on well and they join forces to engineer Georgette and John spending a weekend together at a conference of ficto-critical anthropologists in snowed-in Quebec, but things get complicated when John finds out he’s been manipulated.
Maggie’s Plan is set in an academic context – a world that’s hermetic with its own rules and its own stars. Its characters – John and Georgette – are people who are big in their field but not in the world. But it’s dependent on the character of Maggie and Greta Gerwin carries the whole film, though Julianne Moore threatens to steal it at times. Bill Hader as Tony and Maya Rudolph as his wife Felicia are wonderful support characters, which Miller wrote in for her adaptation of Karen Rinaldi’s short story, always to be relied on for a home truth.
The film is an endearing New York romcom of manners, where the city is shot so intimately that snowy Lower Manhattan, with its Washington Square Park and a skating rink, becomes almost another character. Every shot is essential, the camera always moves for a reason. Miller uses places to create an emotion – the bench John and Maggie sit on in the park or the strange-shaped bench in their college. It has been compared to Woody Allen’s New York films such as Manhattan, but it has a 1940s feel. Maybe it’s a Preston Sturgess film for its pacing and empathy for its characters. Maybe its palette and tone has a touch of Eric Rohmer. Though it’s a romcom with a rather rarified setting, it’s a great watch – it’s beautifully crafted and the dialogue is witty and funny.
Maggie’s Plan is released on 8 July 2016 in the UK.