Maggie’s Plan

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Love is messy. An unoriginal observation, perhaps, but certainly right on the mark.

We fall in love. We fall out of love. We struggle to make it work. We mourn its passing. We take it for granted. We celebrate it. We covet it. And, at some point in our lives, we realize that love comes in all shapes, sizes, and varieties, though we don’t always get to choose the how’s or why’s or when’s or who’s. Leonard Cohen might have put it best when he sang, “To every heart, every heart, love will come…but like a refugee.”

Maggie’s Plan is all about love:  messy, complicated, grown-up love.

Greta Gerwig’s 30-something Maggie wants a baby. But she wants it on her own terms, on her own timetable, and to her own particular specifications. So Maggie sets off to engineer the little miracle, an effort that is complicated when she falls for married John (Ethan Hawke). Eventually, she decides that she wants John, too. On her own terms. On her own timetable. And to her own particular specifications. Before long, lucky Maggie has gotten exactly what she wanted—the baby, the man, and the life—but then starts to realize that she just might want something else, instead. On her own terms, on her own timetable…you get the idea.

The marketing folks behind Maggie’s Plan have packaged it as a “screwball comedy”, and it most decidedly is not that. Maggie’s machinations might be the stuff of screwball comedy, especially in the film’s second half, but the pace, performances, and tone of the film never actually rise to that screwball pitch. Instead, the film settles into a comfortable, leisurely gait, delivering some laughs, for sure, but at last becoming much more affecting than you ever expect going in.

Writer/director Rebecca Miller (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) has a lot to say about adult love and relationships. The film starts out a bit uneven, the characters clichéd and two-dimensional, but as the film presses forward the characters begin to come into more clear focus and their motivations and reactions become more complex. It may be that writer-Miller was ultimately rescued by director-Miller, whose ability to masterfully conduct her orchestra of actors allows the film to find its way.

Of the three leads at the heart of Maggie’s Plan, Julianne Moore starts off on the shakiest ground. Playing John’s intellectual, ambitious wife, Georgette—broadly drawn as a caricature, outlandish accent and all—Moore quickly pivots away from her early over-the-top take on the character and by the end delivers a fully-realized, three-dimensional performance.

Ditto Ethan Hawke, who—truth be told—is never so effective as when he portrays slacking, emotionally-immature, self-centered dreamers. In that regard, John is tailor-made for the actor: a philandering would-be-novelist who romanticizes his love affair with a never-finished manuscript even as it seduces him into neglect and abandonment of his real-world relationships.

The irresistible force at the center of Maggie’s Plan, however, is the utterly indefatigable Greta Gerwig, into whose orbit the other characters dance and play and come and go like shooting stars. In the six years since her career kick-starter Greenberg, Gerwig has come to define indie-cred and indie-cool. From Lola Versus to Frances Ha to Mistress America and now Maggie’s Plan, Gerwig has cornered the market on the existential angst of going from young adult to actual grown up. In Maggie’s Plan, she is educated, has a good job at the New School in New York, but struggles to achieve a degree of personal happiness to go with her professional success. And she makes a hell of a lot of mistakes along the way.

Despite Gerwig’s natural charm and irresistible charisma, even admitted Gerwig obsessives (and believe me, I know of what I speak) will find Maggie a tad off-putting. She is not a bad person, per se, but her tendency towards manipulation, duplicity, and self-deception—while making her very real, certainly—suggests caution before letting her get too close to your heart. Indeed, only during a handful of disarming moments with her young daughter Lilly does Maggie let her guard down and allow herself instants of genuine joy and love, but those are few and far in between.

Not that John or Georgette are such saints, either. It would seem that the central requirement for occupying a corner of Maggie’s love triangle is total self-centeredness and a lack of self-awareness. In fact, that combination may well have been the recipe for the “screwball comedy” that the marketers imagined.

Instead, though, after a few early bumps in the road and despite a bit of plot silliness here and there, Maggie’s Plan turns out to be an honest, engaging snapshot of yearning, aspiration, heartache, and—though the arrow never quite lands where it is aimed—that lonely refugee love.

Mistress America

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Who would have guessed that we might start to recognize a distinctive “Greta Gerwig” style of cinema?

Filmic sensibilities are an odd and difficult thing to define, but we know them when we see them. Woody Allen has a distinct sensibility and so does Martin Scorsese…and those two are in no way similar. Some films—whether tied to their namesakes or not—are easily catalogued as Capra-esque or Hitchcock-ean. And pretty much anyone who sees more than one movie a year can spot a Quentin Tarantino movie before the opening credits are done rolling.

But Greta Gerwig?

Indeed, the indie actress-cum-screenwriter has emerged in recent years as an idiosyncratic cinematic voice, with her latest film, Mistress America, a minor-though-charming addition to her growing and impressive filmography.

Mistress America, which Gerwig stars in, co-produced, and co-wrote with director and best beau Noah Baumbach, is an unexpansive meditation on loneliness, narcissism, and the cult of (failed) ambition. And, like much of Gerwig’s most personal work to date, it delights in the struggle of a generation desperate to find its place as it comes to terms with the twilight of youth and the dawn of adulthood.

Tracy, played with compelling angst by Lola Kirke, is a lonely college freshman, an eager fresh face in New York City. She dozes off in class. The school literary society rejects her. And the boy she’s crushing on finds another girlfriend. Not an auspicious start to the rest of her life. But on a whim she calls up Brooke, her soon-to-be stepsister, who is ten plus years her senior, lives in Times Square, and leads an impulsive and adventurous city life. Tracy’s mom is marrying Brooke’s dad, and although the two girls have never met before, they immediately bond…and Tracy’s whole existence transforms from still-life black-and-white to full-motion Technicolor.

Theoretically, this is Tracy’s story, but the movie—like everyone who comes in contact with her—is drawn to and fueled by the ultra-charismatic Brooke.

Gerwig writes and plays Brooke as a narcissistic force of nature: a whirlwind of egocentric observations, insights, schemes, and dreams. She survives on pure brute force of personality, living off of a combination of odd jobs and utilitarian relationships. And despite a nearly clinical case of self-absorption, Brooke appears to be the only one in her orbit who fails to see that—regardless of her magnetism—she is completely and utterly doomed to failure. She fails see it, yes, but you get the sense that deep down she is beginning to suspect it.

Regardless, Brooke is madly in love with Brooke, even though Brooke is the kind of person who would absolutely hate Brooke if she wasn’t actually Brooke. But maybe that’s how we all really feel about ourselves.

Gerwig’s cinematic baptism has come at the altar of filmmakers like Whit Stillman and Baumbach himself, and it shows in her scripting of Mistress America. And that’s not a bad thing. Though less self-conscious—but dramatically warmer—than movies like Metropolitan or Damsels in Distress (which Gerwig starred in, as well), Gerwig the writer shares a talky, erudite style with Stillman and Baumbach. But her earthy, human moments are significantly more impactful and resonant.

When Anna, a forgotten high school classmate, approaches Brooke in a bar and confronts her over an episode of emotional bullying from years gone by, Brooke is bewildered. She dismisses Anna’s condemnations with a casual, callous rebuke, and then later laughs off the incident and catalogues it as a story to share with friends.

Or maybe just a tweet.