Maggie’s Plan

Talk about cornering a market. Greta Gerwig, through films such as Frances Ha, Mistress America and that godawful Arthur remake with Russell Brand, has made the role of ditzy New York intellectual hipster her own in recent years, becoming a sort of Annie Hall for the barista generation.

Her latest film*** even opens at a market, one of those fancy farmers’ jobbies you get downtown where the cheese is from bespoke sheep and the honey from free-range bees. It’s yet another Manhattan location where Gerwig can wrestle with her scatty doubts and where the eponymous Maggie concocts her titular scheme.

And that plan is to have a baby. It’s been agreed, she will be inseminated with the sperm of an old college acquaintance and maths genius who now runs a suddenly-booming pickle business out of a disused warehouse in Brooklyn. (A pickle guy joke is from Crossing Delancey, remember?)

Her old boyfriend whom she’s meeting at the market (Bill Hader) thinks this is a bad idea, mainly because he’s jealous, even though he’s married to Maggie’s best friend Felicia (the always lovely Maya Rudolph).

Such are the complications of modern life, all distilled in Rebecca Miller’s movie. Things, of course, get even messier when arts faculty administrator Maggie meets Ethan Hawke’s John Harding, a self-obsessed lecturer and struggling novelist, whom Felicia describes in the college canteen as “one of the bad boys of ficto-critical anthropology” and, more importantly, as a “real pantie melter.”

Soon enough, Maggie and John are trading awkward witticisms on a bench in Washington Square, then he’s got her reading the chapters of his novel, then he’s moaning about his marriage to ambitious Colombia University professor Georgette, played brilliantly and hilariously by Julianne Moore with her best comedy accent since The Big Lebowski.

Then, on the very night of the proposed insemination transaction, while Maggie’s holding the still-warm pot of the pickle guy’s sperm, John turns up seeking pity and sex. Panties duly melted.

Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur and spouse of Daniel Day-Lewis, clearly knows a bit about the tortures of over-thinking and the intellectual campus set. She has very smartly squished all of this into a classic New York screwball comedy set-up.

It gets another twist of complications in the second half of the movie, set a couple of years later, when Maggie and John have a child together but Maggie’s plans for happiness, like the best laid of them, have gone awry. And now she wants to get John back with Georgette, a move which, naturally, requires another plan.

“Love is illogical, wasteful and messy and it leaves loose ends,” remarks someone with rare insight. Which is why Gerwig/Maggie’s face is a pretty, perpetual puzzle of her own construction.

“I’m not going to get involved in anybody’s destiny ever again, not even my own,” she wails when all goes wrong. And this is what Miller’s light-footed comedy is all about: trying to control the vagaries of the heart and trying to be true to it. Miller’s skill is avoiding outright kookiness in favour of something just a little more profound.

It’s inevitable to invoke Woody Allen here, the Godfather of this sort of angsty, amusing Manhattan roundelay (there’s even a cameo from Allen regular Wallace Shawn as the chair of a testy academic debate between Hawke’s John and Moore’s Georgette). “The heart is a very, very resilient little muscle,” says Woody himself in Hannah and her Sisters. It could be this movie’s tagline.

But Hawke’s presence also recalls Richard Linklater’s walking and talking films and there’s something very comforting in that, as well as in lesser-seen, snowy New York locations, including a great little romantic episode in an illegal mahjong den-cum-hotel in Chinatown.

As you know, I like this sort of thing, and the performances do it all justice. Moore, in particular, takes the chance to shine – her recent Oscar winning role in Still Alice had her as another New York intellectual but fighting Alzheimer’s, so Georgette gives her a chance to show the funny side of her talents, a strung-out, glacial beauty with a rather endearing lisp, but which she employs with very subtle comic effect to render her intellectual posturing slightly ridiculous.

Which is exactly what Miller’s charming, young-at-bruised-heart film is doing, showing the flaws and the foibles yet also giving her characters the right, and the room, to be happy – if only they could recognise which moment to seize when it comes. One thing’s for sure – you can’t plan for it.

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