Once in a while I fall suddenly, irrevocably head-over-heels for an actor who hasn’t made much of an impression previously, because he or she normally plays secondary or tertiary roles, but has finally been cast in a vehicle that truly lets him or her strut his or her stuff. That happened to me in 2013, when Greta Gerwig got to star in (and also co-wrote) Frances Ha.
Before that, the only thing I’d seen Gerwig in was Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, in which she played the slightly-less-pretty of two friends, soon shunted aside while the camera ogled the other. But in Frances Ha, she was onscreen in nearly every scene, her willingness to risk seeming gawky and foolish and unlikable laid unflinchingly bare. At the beginning of the movie Gerwig irritated me; by the end, she had made another fan-for-life.
The actress has an uncanny gift for sounding more like a real person, for better or worse, than most anyone on the big screen these days. That talent is the source of about half of the screwball energy that propels Maggie’s Plan, Rebecca Miller’s new sweet-and-sour rom/com that has been playing Upstate Films Rhinebeck this past week and moves to Upstate Films Woodstock on Friday. The rest of the oomph comes from a solid script with an edgy Gen-Y sense of humor, lots of terrific New York City locations and a supporting cast that is just about perfect.
Gerwig’s title character is a 30-something professor at the New School who, like many kids who had to grow up too early, is hypercompetent, overpractical and utterly incapable of tolerating uncertainties. She’s a coper and a planner and a hair short of being a control freak. So, with a history of short, failed romantic relationships behind her, she decides to get pregnant by artificial insemination rather than wait for the perfect marriage to strike. Her sperm donor of choice is her old college pal Guy (Travis Fimmel), a math prodigy who gave up a potentially brilliant academic career to become a “pickle entrepreneur” (a joke on contemporary niche foodie marketing that may also be a shout-out to Joan Micklin Silver’s similarly wry 1988 rom/com Crossing Delancey, whose Mr. Right was a picklemaker).
But while Maggie has been planning the perfect timing for conception, she has also been drawn into an intellectual friendship with a somewhat older New School adjunct, John (Ethan Hawke), who is unhappily married to a much more successful Columbia University professor, Georgette (Julianne Moore). Maggie oohs and aahs over John’s novel-in-progress and listens sympathetically to his tales of how chilly-but-needy Georgette constantly saddles him with the kids, how he has to sacrifice his dreams of becoming a great writer of fiction to support his wife’s career. Before too long (and not too long after she applies the turkey-baster), she and John end up in bed together. Maggie gets pregnant, John moves in with her and divorces Georgette.
Jump a couple of years down the road, to discover (unsurprisingly) that Maggie is a brilliant mother to adorable toddler Lily (Ida Rohatyn), and that John’s novel keeps getting longer and longer but seems to be going nowhere. Worse, Georgette continues to depend on him heavily, and he hasn’t the spine to say no to her endless phone calls and sudden changes of plan. Maggie finds herself falling out of love around the same time that she discovers that she and Georgette like each other, as different as they are. A plan begins to form in her mind: Can she manipulate the former couple into getting back together?
On one level, it’s a terribly cynical story that, one imagines, could only have been made into a movie in the 21st century; on another, there’s something classically ’30s about the whole setup. And like a classic screwball comedy, Maggie’s Plan relies on a fabulous cast of quirky allies, obstacles and enablers – most notably Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as Maggie’s two best friends, an ever-sparring-but-ultimately-devoted married couple. (There’s also a choice cameo from Wallace Shawn as an academic.) While the role of John is a bit thankless, much resembling Hawke’s turn as the feckless, mostly absent dad in Boyhood, he manages to convey the character’s charm along with his weaknesses. And Moore, so tragic as a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice, gets to ply her considerable comedic craft with many a perfectly-tweezed arched eyebrow here. Even while working in a creditable Danish accent, she manages to steal a scene or two from the ever-splendid, ever-dorky Gerwig.
Maggie’s Plan is a very funny movie with plenty of darker subtext about human frailties, about controllers and enablers and the lies that we tell ourselves. It’s also an unsparing look at the way that modern folks have to redefine and deconstruct intimate relationships in ways that don’t always conform to romantic clichés. Oh yes – and it’s about how, sometimes, it’s okay just to let things happen instead of making things happen. Maggie finds out, and so will you.
Maggie’s Plan is playing at Upstate Films Woodstock from June 24 until June 30. For more information, visit http://upstatefilms.org. Upstate Films is located at 132 Tinker Street in Woodstock.