*** out of ****
(for strong language, some sexuality, and brief nudity)
Released: May 20, 2016 limited; expands throughout the summer
Runtime: 98 minutes
Director: Rebecca Miller
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph
A keenly dry screwball comedy love triangle, Maggie’s Plan fits squarely into that Woody Allen slice-of-life world inhabited by New York City intellectuals who, despite their literary successes or academic prestige (in anthropology here, ironically enough), they can’t help but be driven by infidelity, angst, and dysfunction. Simultaneously, their lives are to be envied yet are complete disasters, waiting to be exposed for the façades that they are once those veneers start to fall away (usually via irresistible temptation).
From writer/director Rebecca Miller (heretofore known for indie dramas like Personal Velocity and The Ballad of Jack and Rose), Maggie’s Plan starts off like a very pale, bland imitation of the Woody formula – because it is. Little about the first half-hour-plus is particularly distinctive as young single Maggie (Greta Gerwig) finds herself romantically entangled with (older) professor/writer John (Ethan Hawke) who’s married to a comically ice cold elitist of the Ivy League establishment, Georgette (Julianne Moore, sporting an anti-sexi Lili Von Shtupp styled accent). The actors are certainly affable enough, but Miller’s screenplay goes through very recognizable motions, and for a bit too long.
But then, in true Woody fashion, the story goes beyond the usual one or two plot turns to take at least three or four of them (and possibly five or more, depending on what you’re counting). What initially seemed like passable fare eventually becomes wholly unpredictable, which is really saying something for a genre not always defined by such a narrative virtue. The more complicated plans and schemes get, the more you have no idea how it’s all going to shake out.
Enriching the ingenious script is how, eventually, the three key players are both indicted and empathized with along the way, each taking their turns on either side of that coin, one that flips for all three at various times just when you think you have them pegged. It’s a playful enough satire of erudite narcissists to be a voyeuristic hoot, but an honest enough one to make their glaring flaws more familiar than we’d probably like to admit.
Gerwig and Hawke are old pros in this territory and it shows, given her collaborations with writer/director Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, Mistress America) and his with writer/director Richard Linklater (the Before trilogy, Boyhood). For Julianne Moore it’s largely new terrain, but it proves a welcome departure from her standard Awards bait dramatic turns (maybe the closest thing in her career to this overly-stylized quirk was nearly twenty years ago in the Coens’ The Big Lebowski).
SNL alums Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph fit the bill wonderfully as Maggie’s long-married besties, imperfect themselves but mature and stable. They serve the role of the anchored moral conscience in Maggie’s life, balancing the funny with the real without ever actually moralizing. Funny quips about marriage like Hader’s “We fall in and out of love several times a week” are exactly the kind of refreshing truths that Maggie’s vacillating over-romanticized nonsense needs to hear, but dispensed as asides in fast-moving conversations rather than delivered with pregnant beats of self-import.
Maggie’s Plan has exactly the kind of nimble sophistication that’s smart enough to keep you on your toes (and guessing) while still light enough to not overburden you with its well-observed insights. Sure, it may not confront the ramifications of adultery on the kids quite as well as it does on the spouses (definitely some punches pulled there), nor does it treat divorce with the gravity it requires (more of a plot device here than anything else), but what it lacks in moral clarity is tempered by the fact that, despite the laughs, no one in their right minds would want to put themselves through what these three urbane idiots do.