Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Maggie's Plan" is Comfortingly Complicated

It was something of a pleasant shock to find Greta Gerwig playing someone who isn't a walking shambles. Instead, she's playing Maggie, a university program advisor who seems to have her life and priorities all figured out. She wants to be a mother and isn't willing to wait for the right man, so she decides to use the sperm of an old college fling, Guy (Travis Fimmel), to have a baby by herself. Of course, this is undermined by the appearance of John (Ethan Hawke), an academic whose marriage to the brilliant, but overwhelming Columbia professor Georgette (Julianne Moore) is on the rocks. Maggie and John fall in love, but that's just the beginning.

"Maggie's Plan" was written and directed by Rebecca Miller, who we haven't seen a new film from in much too long. It is a gentle comedic farce in construction, loosely patterned on "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The characters are more down-to earth and relatable than the ones I've been watching in most the most recent batch of neurotic New York indie comedies. Even the flamboyant Georgette, with her thick accent and frazzled delivery, is fairly restrained. Though they all trade barbs, it never feels like the characters are trying to bombard each other with their dialogue, the way they sometimes do in Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman movies. There's a welcome mellowness and maturity to Maggie, it's easy to see why everyone likes her, and is influenced by her, though they're also quick to point out her considerable flaws.

Maggie's life isn't working out the way the way she thinks it should, and keeps trying to correct the situation in ways that she shouldn't. So does Georgette. So does John. Maggie's brooding friend Tony (Bill Hader) may be in love with her, but keeps his feelings to himself and stays out of the drama - until he doesn't. All of these people have children and other responsibilities that require them to be adults, and they are mostly very decent, hardworking, and kind adults at that. When Maggie and Georgette meet, they both have to admit that they like each other. And they're also very self-aware and accepting of their own limitations once these are made clear. I love seeing that in any kind of modern comedy these days. And that's probably why I found "Maggie's Plan" so much easier to connect with on a basic level than any of the similar romantic comedies I've seen in a long time. Nobody in it needs to grow up. Nobody has any outsized, unusual personal issues. They just need to learn to get along, with or without each other.

Performances are good all around. It's a relief to find that Greta Gerwig can still play someone more level-headed after so many broader, Millennial basket-cases. I love that Miller makes time to show Maggie simply being a mother, or having fun on a date. Ethan Hawke easily covers all the bases - charming, engaging, frustrating, alienating and yet always sympathetic to some degree. Julianne Moore's Georgette could have been much sillier in other hands, but she's so likeable here. One of my favorite scenes comes late in the movie, where John and Georgette have a heart-to-heart, and we get a good idea of what made their relationship work for so long before it fell apart. And then there's Bill Hader, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors. His role is small, but he really makes it count.

"Maggie's Plan" is so low-key and unassuming, I expect that most people will pass it by. It's a good film, but not an especially good one. However, I can't stop thinking about it. This is the kind of movie I didn't realize that I had wanted to see, didn't realize was missing from my media diet. It was a reminder that there are still movies being made for a thirty-something woman who likes romances that are actually about relationships, and likes comedies where no one has to be the butt of the joke or the bad guy. And yes, having the female perspective is a big part of this. So I really have to do better about keeping my eyes open, and making sure that I don't miss other films like this.


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