Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Back-up Plan: "Maggie's Plan" full of verbal zing but too much generosity

Maggie’s Plan (2016)
98 min., rated R.

For better or for worse, Greta Gerwig has her shtick and she’s sticking to it. You know her and you love her if you've seen "Frances Ha," "Lola Versus," "Damsels in Distress" and "Mistress America." She may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but she is always a quirky delight, no matter the questionable actions of each endearingly human character she plays. Written and directed by Rebecca Miller (2002’s “Personal Velocity”), daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, “Maggie’s Plan” is the filmmaker’s first comedy—it is really a low-key screwball farce, adapted from a short story by Karen Rinaldi—and much like Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach’s output, it captures a specific, insular type of yammer-happy New Yorker to a T. The film has smart, zingy repartee to spare, but writer-director Miller ultimately lets her characters off the hook in this consistently quick-witted but mostly insignificant romantic dramedy.

Maggie Hardin is a full-bore Greta Gerwig character but perhaps less solipsistic. She has a plan, which is to have a baby by being artificially inseminated. Unlucky when it comes to relationships, Maggie decides to use the sperm from an old college pal, a mathematician-turned-pickle entrepreneur named Guy (Travis Fimmel), who would rather put a baby in her the old-fashioned way. Of course, the student advisor’s plan gets derailed when she meets John Harden (Ethan Hawke), a novelist and “ficto-critical anthropologist” professor at her same college, The New School. The two begin having an affair, despite Maggie’s date to be inseminated and the knowledge that John is (unhappily) married. His wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore), is a tenured professor at Columbia University, and it's not long before John leaves Georgette and his two children for Maggie. Three years after John and his then-mistress start their own life together, Maggie hatches another plan when marriage with John isn’t as blissful as she thought it would be.

Generous—maybe too generous—to its welcomely flawed characters, “Maggie’s Plan” is fine when it's just being a vehicle for Greta Gerwig’s gracefully clumsy charm. In fact, Gerwig’s Maggie should have left John in the dust and ran off with Georgette because their dynamic is the most interesting in the film. No matter how growth-challenged Maggie can be, Gerwig is still ingratiating, enough to believe that Ethan Hawke’s John would fall for her. As the icy, sharp-tongued Georgette, Julianne Moore’s arch Danish accent is hard getting used to at first, but being Julianne Moore, she finds delicate vulnerability in this haughty, self-absorbed character. Moore’s enjoyably droll turn begins to steal the show, even from Gerwig, and in supporting roles, Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph are irresistible as sounding-board best friends who are married and comment on Maggie’s relationship. With the on-again, off-again nature of the Maggie-John-Georgette love triangle, “Maggie’s Plan” begins to tire before it ends. It doesn’t amount to much in the long run, either, but it does end in a sweet place anyway.

Grade: C +

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