Director: Rebecca Miller
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore
Watch Maggie’s Plan online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
From Greenberg to Mistress America, watching the evolution of Greta Gerwig on screen has been one of the great pleasures of the last decade – not least because it led her to step behind the screen to make Lady Bird, a delicately precise coming-of-age drama that was profound in its understated honesty. She’s perfectly cast in Maggie’s Plan, a comedy about an arts career advisor, who falls for the wrong guy and sets about fixing it. Or maybe she doesn’t do either.
“What do you want?” John (Ethan Hawke), the pretentious professor who becomes her lover, asks her during a particularly heated exchange. “I want to live honestly,” comes the reply, and that unvarnished gaucheness slots Maggie neatly into Gerwig’s catalogue of earnest, well-meaning protagonists – the kind of people who, even if a movie weren’t about them, would make you want them to be the centre of the story anyway. Maggie is genuine to a fault, and not quite effortlessly so, one step up the maturity rung from Mistress America’s hipster entrepreneur yet still on the same level as Frances Ha’s free-wheeling day-dreamer – one shot of Maggie collecting her mail could conceivably place this almost as a direct sequel.
But Maggie, as the title suggests, does know what she wants – and she isn’t afraid to get it. First on her list is a child, but preferably without the man part, so she decides to go down the sperm donor route, which puts her in touch with a maths genius called Guy (Travis Fimmel), who has an affinity for pickles. Around the same time, though, she crosses paths with John, and, after being wowed by his work-in-progress book, they cross paths again in her bedroom. John, meanwhile, is married to Georgette (Julianne Moore), a formidable Danish professor, and has two kids.
Where most movies would melt into a moral breakdown right there, Maggie’s Plan goes a different route, jumping us three years into the future, a future where John and Maggie are married, and raising her new child (Ida Rohatyn) and his older kids together (Jackson Frazer and Lost in Space’s Mina Sundwall). It’s a move that defines what makes writer and director Rebecca Miller’s work so special: she works with characters, themes and plots in a way that is entirely natural, never bothering with convention to dictate what should happen next.
The result is a beautifully messy world of rounded people with rough edges; Guy, who would be reduced to comic relief in a traditional rom-com, is played by Vikings’ Travis Fimmel with an endearingly vulnerable edge; Bill Hader’s BFF Tony and his wife, Felicia (the ever-brilliant Maya Rudolph), could be token sidekicks expositing life wisdom, but feel like lived-in friends from the moment we first meet them; and Julianne Moore’s Georgette could have been an intimidating, cruel ex-wife or a figure of mockery, but instead emerges as a nuanced, sympathetic figure, turning what could have been a stereotypical love triangle into something closer to a rhombus, or a trapezium.
Miller’s direction generously allows Hawke and Moore screen-time to rediscover their spark, even after we’ve seen it fizzle out – and the film carefully treads that line between romance and heartbreak, between commitment and chaos. And through it all steers Maggie, who continues to strive for what she’s planned, even though that means planning out everyone else’s lives around her as well.
Holding it together is a vein of unforced humour, which veers from spiky and wry to affectionate and warm. “You know me better than I know me,” observes Hawke’s wide-eyed John. “Sometimes I wish I didn’t,” comes Georgette’s barbed reply. But alongside the witty urbane comedy (when a film features the words “the bad boy of ficto-critical anthropology”, you know you’re going to have a good time), the magic that makes it work is the synergy between Miller’s sincere writing and Gerwig’s screen presence. “There’s something so pure about you… and a little bit stupid,” Georgette remarks, and the fact that this ostensibly romantic tale dovetails into a story of two women becoming unlikely friends is testament to how likeable (and realistic) both characters are. Underneath it all, there’s the sneaking suspicion that there is no secret plan, no clue, and that life is about accepting the way our stories have their own momentum, entirely independent of us. Maggie, though, just shrugs and gets on with it, even as she skates backwards through the muddle. Living honestly doesn’t seem like such a bad plan after all.