“Maggie’s Plan does little else but pop, fizzle, and frustrate.”
Since her acting debut in Joe Swanberg’s LOL ten years ago, Greta Gerwig has been nothing but an amiable force of comedy. I still cite her as being the funniest and most entertaining actress working today. With each performance, she accentuates copious amount of energy, while at the same time, embodying the characteristics while playfully satirizing the typical New York twentysomething woman without being particularly offensive or over-the-top. Even with her loud, comic spirit, you get the feeling that her personality isn’t too much different in real life, so in that respect, I’m skeptical of how much conventional acting she needs to do with each one of her films. However, on the basis of being consistently humorous, free-spirited, and relentlessly entertaining, Gerwig rarely falters.
This makes Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan all the more heartbreaking, as its mediocre, meandering screenplay that feels like a half-baked screwball comedy and an airy farce sacrifices her spirit in order to fuel dramatic drudgery. The film revolves around Maggie (Greta Gerwig), who decides she wants to undergo single-motherhood because she wants a child but cannot keep a relationship. She looks towards self-insemination with the help of her close friend (Travis Fimmel), who has gone on to solicit his own artisan pickles as a means of making a living, before she winds up meeting and falling in love with a “ficto-critical” anthropology professor named John (Ethan Hawke).
John is a well-meaning, but relatively passive man caught in a bind with his loveless marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore), a tenured Columbia University professor while he is nothing more than an adjunct professor. A sudden flash-forward in time shows that an affair with Maggie led to John divorcing and remarrying, with the two raising a new child and John’s two previous children, all while Maggie begins to fall out of love with the man she knew. Her backup plan? Get Georgette and John back together.
Maggie’s Plan lacks any kind of dramatic energy and conviction, in addition to being a screwball comedy sans all the laughs and zaniness. What entails is a gaggle of recognizable character actors essentially running around in circles, in search of a joke, a setup, or a clue that would get them on the right tracks, but instead, the film is like a train that grinds and wobbles on unsteady tracks. It never finds its own comedic wavelength or footing, so it winds up settling for a great deal of scenes involving characters doing and saying things that you simply cannot accept.
Consider the scene where Maggie tactlessly tells of Georgette her plan to get her and John back together. This scene is flawed on so many levels not only because of its own improbability, but because of its lack of direction and subtlety. This is the kind of scene Woody Allen could’ve taken to strong comedic heights, but writer/director Miller (who is also the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller) can’t seem to figure out what to do with or in the scene that doesn’t inspire tedium or just blanket frustration.
Supporting characters come in the form of Saturday Night Live costars Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph, who bring the most laughs into a middling piece, but their characters are sidelined so much that, when they do get the chance to play, they feel like they never get out of the warm-up/introductory phase, and are quickly outed from the scene to make way for Hawke’s dry and terribly undeveloped anthropology professor character and Gerwig’s rather faceless character too. Hawke feels like a largely neutered version of his Boyhood self, like he took on the same kind of largely boring professor role as his wife Patricia Arquette in that film but lacked any kind of intelligent commentary, and Moore has never felt more out of place in a film than she does in this one.
In the hands of someone like Baumbach, perhaps Maggie’s Plan could’ve been a fun commentary on the perils of rushing into love as a younger person with an older person who’s spirit is closer in line with yours, yet never grew up. In the hands of someone like Swanberg, or even the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, Maggie’s Plan could’ve featured a lot more contemplative conversation in the way of the same topics, perhaps adding more development to the characters and making light of their own disillusionment. In the hands of Miller, Maggie’s Plan does little else but pop, fizzle, and frustrate.