Schemes of the heart
A compellingly nuanced performance by the quirky Greta Gerwig
The quirky brilliance of Greta Gerwig is the single most compelling element of this new serio-comic film from writer-director Rebecca Miller. And if that quirkiness is already wearing a little thin for you, there are several other very good reasons for seeing (and enjoying) Maggie’s Plan: a stingingly comical performance from Julianne Moore, an amusingly sardonic supporting cast, a script that mixes moods and genres to curiously touching effect, etc.
Maggie (Gerwig) is an independent sort, a comfortably single woman with a job at The New School in Manhattan. She’s not particularly interested in getting married, but she’s decided the time has come to have a child. Hence, the eponymous plan: She’ll have an agreeable male acquaintance donate some of his sperm, and she’ll proceed from there on her own.
We get some idea of the actual merits of her plan at the same time that we see it getting seriously off track. The sperm donor, a mathematician turned “pickle entrepreneur,” is a gently scruffy fellow named Guy (Travis Fimmel), and he’s begun to think that maybe conceiving a child should involve a little more intimacy than depositing sperm in a sterilized jar.
At the same time and even more dramatically, Maggie finds herself falling in love with John (Ethan Hawke), an adjunct professor at the New School whose tempestuous Danish wife (Moore), a tenured New School professor named Georgette, has kicked him out of the house. The story leaps ahead three years and we find Maggie and John married with a child of their own (plus shared custody of the two kids he’s had with Georgette).
As John, a would-be novelist, becomes increasingly isolated and self-involved, Maggie begins to see Georgette in more sympathetic terms, and soon she forms another of her plans: Somehow, Georgette and John must be reunited. Amid their groups of liberal, flexible-minded friends, Maggie and Georgette both emerge as unexpectedly sympathetic (even though contrasting) examples of Miller characters who are both flaky and bracingly honest about their respective mixed emotions.
Among Maggie’s best friends are a former sweetheart (Bill Hader) and his wife (Maya Rudolph), both of whom are sarcastic and loyal in wildly varying amounts. Both make amusing contributions to a paradoxical comedy of contemporary manners in which the traditional roles associated with love and marriage get farcically scrambled and yet somehow honored as well.
Finally, it should be added that Gerwig’s flair for offbeat characterizations has probably never had a better showcase than the one Miller gives her here. That now-familiar quirkiness is perfect and necessary for this remarkable and unusual role, and Gerwig responds with a beautifully nuanced performance that develops calmly and richly, right up through the final, culminating close-up.