Woody Allen may have retreated to nostalgia but the Woody Allen films of the 1980s (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors) of self-absorbed intellectual New Yorkers stalking the urban streets talking relationships and Kierkegaard live on in low-budget indie rom-coms (Appropriate Behavior, Listen Up Philip). But it has taken writer-director Rebecca Miller (The Ballad of Jack and Rose, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) and her indulgent academic brainiac characters of Maggie’s Plan to forge a golden bridge of angst through the decades to the upscale New Yorkers of Manhattan. In Maggie’s Plan, the Allen characters have retired from the upper West Side and now reside in intellectual outposts at The New School, NYU and Columbia housing and instead of Elaine’s as the base of conversation and bad food it is the New School cafeteria and food vendors in Madison Square Park.
Miller’s New York City is a Woody Allen Bizarro World. In Miller City, the women hold the cards. In Woody Land women would all be harridans, intellectual competitors or aggrieved innocents. Here the women have an intelligence that the men in their lives distinctly lack. Particularly Maggie (Greta Gerwig, in a dominating performance). Maggie works at the New School as a director of MBA arts management development (like a grad student’s invention of a cuddly doll with removable organs). Maggie planned out her life down to the second and the first minute of the film sets up the premise. She bemoans, “I’ve never been in a serious relationship that lasted longer than six months” to her college friend Tony (Bill Hader – serving as the Maggie’s Plan white heterosexual version of the black or gay best friend who acts as a sounding board for Maggie’s schemes and is quick with the cynical wisecrack like Bill Murray in Tootsie) but still wants a child. Maggie has arranged with another former college friend, Guy (Travis Fimmel), a mathematician who is now a “pickle entrepreneur”—to be artificially inseminated and is even strict about this plan, figuring to wait until March 23 for the insemination because “I just want to build up more savings.” Guy, of course, wants to do the insemination “the old fashioned way” but Maggie won’t have it.
Maggie’s plan goes awry when she meets part-time “ficto-critical anthropologist” and aspiring novelist John (Ethan Hawke) and falls in love with him. John is married to controlling intellectual Georgette (Julianne Moore – with a hilarious Danish accent and wardrobe that includes matching shag sweater and rug ensemble). Georgette is the Camille Paglia star and John is the overshadowed flunky (“She is wonderful but she is just kind of destroying my life”). Maggie wants to save John from his stiflingly marriage and soon Maggie is married to John and has the daughter she desires. But now Maggie is caring for her new child along with John’s two children. And John himself, who has become a self-absorbed adult child (the archetypal Hawke role). Maggie, the thrill gone, now schemes to get John and Georgette back together: Georgette remarks to Maggie, “You are going to manipulate us all into some kind of absurd happy ending.”
Rebecca Miller keeps her film going at a breezy pace and her actors hit all the right notes to keep the film from becoming arch and off-putting. Miller utilizes the Allen template to an effective degree, framing her scenes in Allen/Eric Rohmer inspired two-shots the give the actors breathing space.
The plot of Maggie’s Plan owes less to Allen than the great screwball comedies of Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth) and Preston Sturges (The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve), films all about the machinations involved in getting separated married couples back together.
But Greta Gerwig owns the film. With Gerwig, the film becomes more character and less screwball. Gerwig cements her comedy credentials (Greenberg, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Mistress America) as Maggie, a character with frustration and energy, who only clicks because Gerwig is playing her. Gerwig not only expertly delivers Miller’s one-liners but she relaxes in the quiet scenes with her daughter, the calm of mother love that is the heart of the film. Behind all the maneuverings and manipulations, this is the loving mother that Maggie wants to be.