Greta Gerwig is a favourite of mine. Her most notable role in Noah Bambauch’s 2012 independent smash, Frances Ha, is unsurprisingly also a favourite of mine. Her energy is always captivating, and the characters she embodies have become so ingrained in my psyche after countless rewatchings that she has come to embody everything I love about contemporary independent cinema. Simple. Honest. Funny.
Last year when Bambauch debuted his second feature starring, and this time also co-written by, muse and partner Gerwig, I was undeniably ecstatic about the potential outcome. But hope breeds eternal misery, or so they say, and in the case of Mistress America I was left largely disappointed by the lacklustre sum of so many great elements.
This review, however, is not about Mistress America. It is about Gerwig’s latest starring role in Maggie’s Plan. And Maggie’s Plan is brilliant. From start to finish the film provides an enjoyable watch with its sweet, amusing tone and an abundance of the type of comedy – filled with honest, relatable events, and humour contrasted with grim realities - that we are not seeing enough of on our screens.
In Maggie’s Plan, writer-director, Rebecca Miller (The Ballad of Jack and Rose), establishes a relatable but Woody Allen-esque eccentricity to her New York universe. A “snowball surrealist story,” – a term coined by our lead in the film – the plot follows Graduate Advisor Maggie (Gerwig) as she begins an affair with colleague John, the “bad boy” of his faculty (an area ingeniously named “ficto-critical anthropology”) which consequently ends his flawed marriage. Realising five years on that their own marriage harbours many flaws of its own, Maggie teams up with John’s ex-wife, Georgette (played by the consistently funny Julianne Moore showcasing a Danish accent and a modern ice-queen aesthetic) to get the former couple back together.
Maggie is so likeable. She is well-meaning, although not necessarily good at maintaining boundaries, and always comes prepared with a plan. When audiences first meet her, she is telling best friend Tony (Bill Hader) her plan to conceive a child via artificial insemination with an acquaintance from college. “How much involvement were you thinking of having?” she asks mathematician-turned-pickle entrepreneur Guy (Travis Fimmel) moments later, “because I was thinking none.” It is this type of candid, earnest dialogue that earns Maggie her likeable status. She merely wants what is best for everyone.
In a film so concerned about the bigger life choices involved with relationships, parenthood and all the messy stuff that come with them, it is unsurprising that “destiny” is omnipresent throughout the film. Characters repeatedly discuss its role in their lives, and internally question whether its presence can be overshadowed by their own volition. The irony is that despite all her scheming and planning, Maggie, and those around her, will always fall victim to pursuits of destiny. Despite this, Maggie tries her best to ensure she has a plan to fight against it.
Rather than falling victim to typecasting, Gerwig has developed, and consequently earned, an auteur-like command over each of her roles. Although the opening of Maggie’s Plan teeters dangerously close to Gerwig’s Frances Ha persona (her worries of never finding a partner but desperately wanting a child recall the memorable “Undateable!” catchcry of Frances), it is indisputable that each new role Gerwig takes on is slightly more nuanced and developed than the last. Maggie is talky, and giddy about opportunity, and it all comes so effortlessly to Gerwig who has clearly spent a great deal of time focusing on differentiating Maggie from her previous similar roles.
Much like every other element of the film, the cinematography has been thought out so extensively it is easy to forget this film will be grouped in with many rom-coms which favour star casting over any real substance. The repeated horizontal framing and the use of very few differentiating shots in each scene provides consistency and creates the illusion of the theatre for audiences. It is easy to imagine the film as a play.
Miller’s screenplay is charming and alive and real. Extending far beyond the triangular couple at its core, Miller ensures every character is written with an emotionally-engaging level of depth. John and Georgette’s daughter, Justine (Mina Sundwall), has an impatience for her family’s peculiarities which provides a real-world checking point to contrast against the fantastical story Miller has concocted. When Justine does finally call out the adults in her life for their ridiculous behaviour, it is presented not in the teen-angsty way that so many films featuring teenagers depict, but rather, it reflects how the changing tones of adult relationship really do affect the entire family, no matter how modern that family is.
Where Miller, and Maggie’s Plan excels is in its focus on the minute details. From the irony in a brief mention of John teaching a class on family dynamics when it is so obvious to audiences that his own family is far from functional, to the repeated nods to the film’s title, and Maggie’s personality, that she will always have a plan, the film is repeatedly paying respect to its well-crafted characters.
In a similar respect, Miller is sure to tie up all loose ends. There is a subtle melancholic tone that flows through the film as we see Maggie painfully recall losing her mother at a young age, and then visiting a Quaker church that she used to attend with her mother, but this is simply preparing audiences for the immense warmth that incredibly sweet, intimate scenes between Maggie and her own daughter Lily, will later have over them. Miller has a delicate but conscious touch that ensures every moment supports another.
A twenty-first century comedy of remarriage, Maggie’s Plan, should remain in the forefront of future rom-com makers’ minds for its wit, warmth, and originality.