Love her or hate her, Greta Gerwig is here to stay.
Love her or hate her, Greta Gerwig is here to stay. Falling somewhere between Lena Dunham and Miranda July, her brand of klutzy, self-questioning charm makes for a mostly endearing screen presence. In collaboration with boyfriend Noah Baumbach, the results have been effervescent. Frances Ha and Mistress America (both of which she co-wrote) are quirky but also funny and smart in truly original ways. The same cannot be said for Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan. While the honor of a starring role is much-deserved, her Plan plays out like an ill-formed thought experiment. Writer-director Miller (daughter of playwright Arthur Miller) brings in a cadre of celebrity-friends including Julianne Moore, Maya Rudolph and even (briefly) Kathleen Hanna, but whatever her plan is, it doesn’t quite work.
Maggie (Gerwig) is a perpetually scarfed schoolmarm who wants a baby. Who cares if she’s single? As she tells friend (Bill Hader), she’s going to have it via artificial insemination because she wants to and that’s enough. The announcement makes for a blunt and feminist start, but it’s also somehow lackluster. Maybe it’s the way Maggie says it—like an afterthought, as casual as a craving for peanut butter.
Maggie secures a donation from a mathematician-turned-pickle-entrepreneur (Travis Fimmel), and everything seems to be going smoothly. Then she meets John (Ethan Hawke). He’s a “ficto-critical anthropology” professor at the liberal arts college where she works, and he’s got all the preciousness of a mild-mannered, middle-aged dad.
Miller is drawn to the mundane, but as John and Maggie sit in Washington Square Park, eat cupcakes and talk about his novel, the film starts to feel too mundane for its own good. When John buzzes her apartment in the middle of the night and she abandons her insemination to let him in, the embrace is inevitable.
Miller doesn’t make room for surprises until the arrival of Georgette (Julianne Moore), John’s hyper-accomplished wife and ceaseless comic relief. With her outrageous accent, fur vests and ludicrous declarations (“No one unpacks commodity fetishism like you do”), she’s a wild contrast to Gerwig’s Mumblecore naturalism. Like John, Georgette is a professor in “ficto”-whatever, but she’s widely published and has tenure at Columbia. With these details in mind, Miller seems to be suggesting that one of the reasons John strays from their marriage is because her achievements overshadow his own.
Rather than delve into this dynamic, the film jumps ahead three years. Maggie now has a daughter, a husband (John) and two step kids. Any semblance of “me-time” has been sucked up by domestic errands, work and a perennial need to serve John and his mercurial schedule. What’s interesting is the way Maggie and John have fallen into stereotypical gender roles. While she cooks, cleans and provides 24/7 childcare, he lounges around their loft, listening to Bruce Springsteen, still supposedly working on that tome of a novel. Here, Miller smartly shows how strong the structures of patriarchy can be, pulling women into the sort of repressive housewife role their education and cultural context would seem to reject.
Maggie’s Plan is neither serious enough to be a drama nor funny enough to be a comedy. It unravels too much like its protagonist’s life: haphazard, plan-less and, above all, lacking in the urgency needed to keep us interested. Maggie mentions a deceased parent, but the moment blows by. Moore’s character is straight out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, but she coexists with blah characters who can’t match her powerful sense of absurdity. Hader and Rudolph’s comedic talents go to waste, squandered in a script that’s too shy to embrace its inner zaniness.
Rebecca Miller worked hard to get this film made. Along the way, she ensured that her production team included a fair amount of women. Maggie’s Plan prides itself as a little, female-led film that could, and criticizing it kind of hurts. I want women to succeed in the film industry. But as we break certain glass ceilings at, say, the offices of Sony Pictures Classics, we must also be willing to get criticized because that’s part of the deal too. In light of Miller’s already-impressive filmography, she will likely go on to make more films. Let us rest assured—she has a plan.