Welcome to Maggie’s bubble. It is a very genre-specific bubble; that of quirky intellectuals, and Springsteen- and Žižek-loving academics/anthropologists in the cold-but-all-warm-inside New York. We’ve visited similar bubbles before with some other (famous) directors, so we can feel right at home as we gently descend into this subtly-woven, but then also occasionally in-your-face (in an intellectual way, of course) funny indie romcom/drama.
Right at the start of Maggie’s Plan, we meet Greta Gerwig’s titular Maggie, who appears to be a HBO Girls ( Dunham, 2012 – ) runaway character – a very smart and very quirky young female New Yorker, who is – before the first dialogue of the film is even over – pegged as someone compulsive and not that steadfast in romantic relationships, but apparently ready to get pregnant. She enlists her acquaintance – a mathematician turned pickle entrepreneur (subtly brilliant Travis Fimmel) – as a sperm donor. It is immediately obvious that his attraction might spin past the pickle stand and the donor thing, but Maggie remains oblivious to it – even when he gallantly offers to deliver the sperm in the old fashioned way, which she politely refuses – the latter exchange makes for a perfectly delivered and a beautifully awkward scene. But Maggie, who works as an advisor for artists, marches on in her own beat, until her romantically unstable heart skips a beat or two – in parallel with her quest to reign over her own destiny and get a baby, she meets John (Ethan Hawke) over a paycheck confusion; he is another academic, an anthropology professor and a writer, who immediately connects with Maggie – but is married to and has two children with the icy genius ficto-anthropology professor, Georgette (brilliantly delivered by Julianne Moore), who is apparently solely focused on her own career while ignoring John, his novel and his ‘potential’. So Maggie and John first start meeting to discuss his novel, and then continue to meet on a progressively more intimate, life-story-sharing ground, until the fateful day of sperm-donation-interruptus when John knocks on Maggie’s door with anything but book talk in mind. Cue a few years later, with John and Georgette divorced and Maggie and John married with a kid – and with Maggie becoming more and more dissatisfied with John’s novel-in-limbo situation and also with John himself, since (according to her point of view, and – let’s face it – everyone else’s) he uses the novel as an excuse to have Maggie manage his whole life, from bills to children – the one from the current and the two from the previous marriage. So instead of ending things the way most people would, she does another Maggie-esque thing: she devises the perfect plan of simply returning things to the way they were before – a plan that rides mainly on getting John back with Georgette.
The acclaimed writer-director Rebecca Miller didn’t really open up a door into a completely new world with Maggie’s Plan, the screenplay of which she based on the novel by Karen Rinaldi, but she found some quirky and fresh ways to explore the already familiar human types and topics. She used well-timed and smartly worded humor and realistically flawed characters to spin a tale of the modern era. In the complicated web of even more complicated characters who are intelligent about many things but not quite as smart when it comes to the generalities of life, Miller also inserted some well-timed appearances from the one ‘normal’ couple in this story, Tony and Felicia (the ever great Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph), who exist in this quirky bubble both as voices of reason and as Mouths of Viewers, often saying out loud exactly what we would like to say to the leads of this film.
In terms of cast, Gerwig basically just re-cast herself in the role of yet another millenial – which doesn’t mean that she did not do a splendid job. Her own brand of quirk served her perfectly for the role of Maggie. Ethan Hawke also did well, channeling the dream-big-deliver-little anthropologist who is well respected in his own field but got stuck in his own idea of the kind of novel he should write, and the kind of writer he should be. His character is perhaps the most lost, and portrayed as such – stuck between two strong women, but basically just in need of someone to lean onto. But the one who really shines in this film is Julianne Moore. The occasionally shaky Danish accent aside, her delivery of the cold-but-passionate, fiercely independent at first, but heartbroken and in actuality quite dependent Georgette, is simply stellar. Her character is the most complex, but Moore did her justice, delivering all polar opposite characteristics and the hues in between perfectly on point, which is what made this film so special. It is debatable if her character emerges as the ‘winner’ of the tale, but Moore most definitely won the film with her acting.
If you still believe that this is just another in the series of New York-based, love triangle rom-coms, you are wrong. In terms of the story, the true warmth and depth of Maggie’s Plan naturally lie with the relationships of this film – the supporting, but occasionally reprimanding friends, and the intimate mother-daughter moments, such as the heavy-on-the-metaphor one between Maggie and Lilly when they are blowing bubbles and Maggie conveys her wish to live inside one of the perfect bubbles, only to have reality peek in through Lilly’s poignant reply of having the same wish, but “… I want my own bubbles.” The warmth and depth can also be found in the gentle manner/subtle romantic disposition of the mathematician/pickle guy who is almost invisible story-wise, but still makes a lasting impression with each resurfacing, and above all, the unlikely friendship with oodles of complexity but underlying warmth that stems and blossoms from the plotting of the two female leads. To tell you the truth, I would have liked the film even more if they threw the useless character of John out in entirety and just set the latter part of the movie around the relationship of Maggie and Georgette and their housekeeping misadventures … though that too would probably turn out to be too much for Maggie, the millenial butterfly, who would eventually try her hardest to return Georgette to John. I guess there really was only one possible ending for this story.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © 2016 – Sony Pictures Classics