“Maggie’s Plan” has a pretty great cast. It’s just too bad that more of them don’t get the chance to really act. This is one of those films where just knowing who’s playing each part tells you almost everything you need to know about the characters.
For instance, when I say that Greta Gerwig stars, you picture a charming but flighty young woman whose worries include whether or not she can maintain her eccentric spontaneity while learning how to adult. (She’s definitely someone who uses ‘adult’ as a verb.) Her fashions are endearingly quaint, her job is vaguely academic, and she’s a New Yorker through and through. In other words, if you’ve seen a Greta Gerwig movie, you know this woman.
That’s Maggie. Her titular plan (the first one) involves becoming a mother without having to deal with all that messy relationship nonsense, so she sets out in search of a suitable sperm donor. She thinks she’s found one in the person of a Brooklyn pickle Guy–his name is actually Guy–whose picture should be next to the word ‘hipster’ in Webster’s.
Before Maggie’s efforts come to fruition, however, she has a meet-cute with John, a professor played by Ethan Hawke. He is, of course, a thoroughly Hawkeian character, as most memorably defined in Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy: intellectually pretentious, handsomely weathered, and at his core, kind of an asshole. Quicker than you can say “read my novel,” he’s cheating on his wife, Georgette, with her.
Said wife is played by Julianne Moore, and leave it to the Oscar winner to deliver the one actual performance in the film. Georgette, a Columbia professor whose fame, intelligence, and accent all overshadow her husband. She’s the rose, and he’s the gardener, according to John’s stated theory of relationships. Thanks to Maggie, though, the gardener becomes the gardened, until our protagonist looks around one day and realizes she’s become a frazzled stepmom who’s in the process of surrendering her own dreams so that her man can pursue his.
That’s where writer-director Rebecca Miller’s screenplay takes its sharpest, and funniest, twist. Maggie decides to get John and Georgette back together, this second plan pursued through some classic screwball comedy strategies, including the classic “snowed in at the academic conference in Quebec” gambit. (“I heard Zizek is going to be there!”)
Before I forget, Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph play Maggie’s college pal and his wife, whose apparently successful adventures in parenting inspired Maggie’s maternity quest in the first place. They also behave and appear just like you’d imagine Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph would appear if they were married and had a kid.
Miller’s movies (this is her fifth feature, but her first in six years) have always been smartly written, female-centered, and thought-provoking. “Maggie’s Plan” is two out of three. It’s witty, entertaining, and easy to enjoy. But it never challenges us, or its actors, to really subvert expectations, and that’s what keeps it from being great.
(98 minutes, rated R, opens Friday, June 10 at the Hollywood Theatre, Regal Fox Tower, and other locations) GRADE: B