Has a Comic Twist
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Because it is very New York, sophisticated, intelligent, witty, provocative and well written, I think Woody Allen would like director Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan”… just in case he’s reading. It is of course about love among the scholarly and introspective, the whys and wherefores therein, with a smart meditation on that emotion as life’s essentially indefinable motivator. Though Miller, who wrote the screenplay with Karen Rinaldi, doesn’t add to anything Mr. Shakespeare has already apprised us of, she gives it a good, seriocomic rummage.
Meet Maggie, the sweet, unassuming administrator at The New School in quiet, innocent and hopeful search of her destiny. Skillfully portrayed by Greta Gerwig, she’s a real lambie pie and easy to quickly embrace as our heroine. Thus, when she meets Ethan Hawke’s John Harding, the wolfish bad boy of esoteric contemplations whose anthropological specialty will chidingly elude us for the length of the movie, hope springs eternal. It’s gabbed throughout the halls of academia that he’s in a horrific marriage with a notably evil genius. Perhaps Maggie can rescue him.
Along its pensively studious way, the story wends its way through the intricacies, foibles and uncertainties of higher thought, and asks which alleys of ambition those so gifted should explore. Specifically, John, who’s made a bit of a name for himself in scholarly nonfiction, longs to complete a novel he’s begun. After all, that’s where the real fame resides, not to mention the big money. So we figure Cupid has a hand in it when Maggie offers to read the recently completed first chapter. She loves it, and he loves the adulation. He’s spurred to continue.
By this time we’ve visited the cold, antiseptic home John inhabits with his two brainy kids and Georgette, a celebrated prof at Columbia played by Julianne Moore. While Moore’s Danish accent isn’t as zealous as Meryl Streep’s in “Out of Africa” (1985), you can call the egocentric’s inflections humorously correct. She is ruthlessly critical, but probably accurate. Hurtfully implied in her every diatribe is the fact that she is the breadwinner. It’s as if she’s fashioned this picture only to please Dostoevsky’s theory that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
We don’t like her. Hence, while opposed to swaying from our stance on the sanctity of the family unit, but also acknowledging that all is fair in love and war, we can’t help but offer our dispensation. On with the affair! The extramarital bond grows with every new chapter of John’s presumptive novel that Maggie inevitably adores. But while unsurprised at the upshot, we will ultimately be treated to a turn of events that entertainingly steers the saga clear of the predictable.
Savvy scribing, which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that the auteur is playwright Arthur Miller’s daughter, provides an intriguingly sly lesson about judging a book by its cover. It’s an egalitarian look at human dynamics. Not giving too much away, suffice it to note that following the push comes to shove aspect of the tale, wherein personalities and traits have now become more developed, we are shown the inherent relativity of conflict.
The suggested thesis is that there’s a little bit of oppressor in every victim and vice versa, and enough passive-aggressive disorder upon the land to keep us Homo sapiens flummoxed at least until our next major evolution. It’s all amusingly cerebral, and touches upon a whole host of ancillary topics certain to nourish those receptive minds who’ve waywardly spent far too much time among super heroes, scary monsters and cacophonous accumulations of special effects. Decidedly art-house, it’s the sort of film that unapologetically welcomes conjecture.
Afforded this atmosphere to flex her acting chops, Gerwig as the new Alice in the Wonderland that is modern New York is a sweet marshmallow of a gal, even if her titular scheme reveals another side to her. Likewise, Julianne Moore employs a thespic instrument that has allowed her to transition rewardingly from mysterious vamp to character actor without forfeiting that sexy allure. And Hawke as John Harding fashions a contemporary take on that classically pompous scholar who believes his very being is a gift to the world.
Fine supporting performances are contributed by Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as Maggie’s married friends. Sounding boards to her qualms, they’re vital to the spirit of the fable as it comically sifts through the curiosities of human behavior. Not bothering to search for anything less than the meaning of life, the movie’s polite conceit proposes that the discovery thereof is synonymous with happiness, or at least it is among the oh so intelligent and cosmopolitan. But whether its eccentric twist is harebrained or sensible, seeing “Maggie’s Plan” is a good idea.
“Maggie’s Plan,” rated R, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by Rebecca Miller and stars Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore. Running time: 98 minutes