'Maggie’s Plan': Finally, an Intelligent Comedy

Intelligent comedies are few and far between these days, and that is why Rebecca Miller’s smart love story is so refreshing

Greta Gerwig and Ethan Hawke in 'Maggie's Plan'.
Jon Pack / Hall Monitor, Inc.

Intelligent American comedies have become increasingly rare in present-day cinema, and even if “Maggie’s Plan,” made by Rebecca Miller, the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, will not enter the comedic pantheon, the very fact that it can be termed an intelligent comedy is enough to set it apart.

This is Miller’s fifth film as a director. I didn’t think highly of her previous pictures, which include “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” and “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” because their ambition was inadequately grounded. One reason that “Maggie’s Plan” is distinctive is the fact that although the three main characters are quite irritating, each in his or her own way, they also have sides that make us feel affection for them. Most contemporary comedies try to get us to “fall in love” with their protagonists immediately, usually without sufficient cause, and to that end the characters make great efforts to ingratiate themselves with us. That this is not the case with the characters in “Maggie’s Plan” is in itself a breath of fresh air in present-day comedies.

Maggie (Greta Gerwig), whose Quaker upbringing perhaps helps account for the severity of her attitude toward herself and her surroundings, wants to control her life and her fate. However, life and fate have a way of discombobulating those who want to control them. Maggie, who lives in New York and works in The New School, is single, her romantic life not having been successful thus far. Apparently, in every relationship her personality clashed with that of her partner, and she is not big on compromise. Accordingly, she decides to become pregnant, and chooses Guy (Travis Fimmel), her former partner, a “pickle entrepreneur” who dreams of establishing an industrial empire on that basis, as the sperm donor.

But then fate intervenes in Maggie’s life. As a result of a clerical error at The New School, Maggie meets John (Ethan Hawke), an anthropology professor. He finds in Maggie – who seems ready to demonstrate her effervescent personality for anyone who’s interested – an attentive ear for his personal and creative problems. He is married to Georgette (Julianne Moore), who is in the same field as her husband, but whose career has far outstripped his. He feels she is belittling him and riding roughshod over him, while in her eyes, he lacks the requisite skills.

A metaphor that the film invokes with amusing irony is a comparison of relationships to a garden. In the marriage of John and Georgette, John is the gardener who is watering the rose, namely Georgette; and in the relationship that develops between John and Maggie, John is the rose that Maggie is watering. This has to do with the fact that John, like many academics before him, has long been writing a novel in which his wife takes no interest; but Maggie, whom he asks to read the first chapter, gushes over it and urges John to keep writing. (Maggie apparently hasn’t seen the many movies in which it’s always a bad sign when someone spends years writing a novel but never manages to finish it.)

Lurking spoilers prevent me from divulging more of the plot, except to say that naturally the question arises of whether Maggie will become pregnant, and if so, by whom; whether Maggie, who as we saw wants to control her life and fate, and who has fallen in love with John and he with her, will discover that John is a bit too much of a rose who needs constant gardening on her part, showing egocentrism on his part; and also if, as a result of the plot devices, a tie will be formed between Maggie and Georgette, who continues to control John’s life even after she finds out about his affair with Maggie – who someone in the film describes as pure but also somewhat dumb.

Shrewd and witty

“Maggie’s Plan” is also a clever comedy in terms of its cultural references and its appeal to an educated audience. One of its best jokes makes reference to the name and fame of the Slovenian theoretician Slavoj Zizek, and it’s clear that Miller is familiar with “Pursuits of Happiness,” by the philosopher Stanley Cavell, which has become a basic text in every study of classic American romantic comedies. Cavell’s brilliant work deals, as its subtitle indicates, with “the Hollywood comedy of remarriage,” and Miller’s picture is a shrewd and witty variation on several of Cavell’s theories on this subject.

The three stars are excellent. True, Greta Gerwig once more plays the young woman who tries to control her life but without much success, as she did in “Frances Ha.” But as Maggie, she is able to bring out the disparity that exists in this character between self-confidence and fragility. Ethan Hawke also does a very fine job of bringing to the fore the disconnects in his character between ambition, egocentrism and weakness. Particularly amusing is Julianne Moore – it’s a pleasure to see her carry off a comic role with such skillful precision after her hysterical performance in “Maps to the Stars” and her appearances in two tearjerkers, “Still Alice” and “Freeheld.” Every sentence spoken by Moore in “Maggie’s Plan” is on target. Above all, she is able to show both Georgette’s arrogant, patronizing side and her touching side – no easy task, certainly not in comedy. Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph, as Maggie’s friends who advise her at her moment of crisis, also do good work.

Even if “Maggie’s Plan” is not a great comedy, it is a work of intelligence that succeeded in surprising me, especially after Miller’s earlier films. There are thematic elements that connect to those movies, but this time she handles them with a lighter touch, though without jettisoning their seriousness. Maggie had a plan: to become a mother. Miller’s comedy focuses on the question of whether she will succeed in executing her plan, and its plot developments lead to a situation in which that plan is at the center of the emotional maelstrom of relations between the men and women in the movie.