Unfavorable comparisons hound what should have been a much more progressive film.
As brand names continue to monopolize the Hollywood blockbuster, add the romantic comedy to the vanishing middle class of movie genres, along with Westerns, crime films, musicals and more. Hollywood will still crank out the occasional star-heavy, rom-com monstrosity, usually directed by Garry Marshall, but otherwise independent filmmakers have been left to pick up the slack.
It’s a great opportunity to remake the genre into something more socially and cinematically progressive than its forebears, which is why a middling dullard like Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan feels like such a grave disappointment. The film deals with subjects like marital infidelity and single-parent insemination in a world of hyperliterate New York intellectuals, but the aesthetics and storytelling of Maggie’s Plan are almost mechanically conventional.
Greta Gerwig, bless her heart, stars in and almost single-handedly saves this otherwise worthless movie as Maggie, a professor at The New School who falls for “the bad boy of fictocritical anthropology” (Ethan Hawke, of course), even while preparing to impregnate herself with the semen of a hipster pickle briner. Maggie woos the anthropology professor away from his more successful spouse (Julianne Moore), but years later they have fallen out of love, and she schemes to reunite him with his first wife.
Flighty but determined, Maggie wants to make her own decisions (even her chosen name is a stubborn mutation of Joanna Margaret Paul), but also tends to meddle in the decisions of others. Gerwig was already the Diane Keaton of her generation before Maggie’s Plan, but her performance here only underlines and circles that comparison while adding stars and hearts in the margins. The problem is that she’s the only person in this strong cast who rises above the level of rank caricature.
Moore’s performance here as an imperious Eastern European intellectual is only marginally less campy than her turn as Malkin the dragon witch in Seventh Son. Meanwhile, Hawke draws upon autobiographical elements to play an insufferable philanderer—it’s far from the first time Hawke has used his personal life as character inspiration, but he’s never done it with such little conviction. As a bickering married couple, Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph are intrusive afterthoughts, and they struggle to justify their presence.
Unfavorable comparisons hound Maggie’s Plan—the film owes such obvious debts to the works of Woody Allen and to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (there’s even a hotel tryst turned blowup right out of Before Midnight) that it pales in comparison to its influences. Adapting a story by Karen Rinaldi, writer-direct Miller (Personal Velocity; The Ballad of Jack and Rose) sets up a blandly warming, pretentiously pedantic tone in the opening moments that unfortunately never relents.
There are no real laughs in Maggie’s Plan, only chuckles of recognition at the rough cadence of comedy, acknowledgments of the empty spaces where we expect humor to reside. The twinkly acoustic guitar score from Michael Rohatyn feels programmed to accompany an open-air luxury mall stroll, just right for a film without any unexpected notes.