‘Maggie’s Plan’ Film Review: ‘Annie Hall’ for Millennials

If it’s true that the way to make God laugh is to make a plan, then “Maggie’s Plan,” a screwball comedy about adultery, divorce, academic politics, figure skating and artificial insemination (if not necessarily in that order) is making the gods laugh from the mounts of Olympus to those of Sinai and Kailash. It’ll tickle mortals, too.

The film is from writer-director Rebecca Miller, whose “Personal Velocity” and “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” are quiet, keenly observed portraits of women in transition. By contrast, “Maggie’s Plan” is a rowdy panorama, and so sharp about modern dating and mating that you could dice an onion with it. Not previously known for her comic chops, Miller gives us “Annie Hall” for millennials.

Maggie herself, played by that human flamingo Greta Gerwig, has many plans. As is the custom in movies of this ilk, the best plan is not to have one.

Happy in her job at the New School as the “bridge” between product designers and businesses that can develop their work for market, Maggie is cheerful and clearsighted—characteristics new to the Gerwig repertoire. Where directors such as Noah Baumbach (“Greenberg,” “Frances Ha”) and Whit Stillman (“Damsels in Distress”) cast the actress as a whirligig of whimsy, Miller emphasizes her balance and calm. On screen Gerwig rarely has been so thoughtful—or so lovely.

At the movie’s outset, Maggie is finalizing her plan to become a single mother. Her sperm donor is Guy (Travis Fimmel), maker of artisanal pickles. Maggie’s ex, Tony (Bill Hader), and his wife, Felicia (Maya Rudolph), are her confessors and surrogate family. Then Maggie meets John (Ethan Hawke), a married academic and, according to gossip, notorious “panty melter.”

John loves but is frustrated by his Danish wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore, lisping like Marlene Dietrich), a theorist of some kind. She has the bigger career and depends on him to be the primary parent to their children. John, a theorist who teaches ficto-critical anthropology, also loves Maggie, who gives him attention, reads his latest manuscript and is available.

You can guess what happens next. But can you guess what happens after that?

Miller films the comedy in long shots and moments of recognition in close-ups, a strategy that gives her film both rhythm and depth. She comes to observe her characters, not to judge them, and each performance—from the emotional Tony and Felicia to the cerebral John and Georgette—is wonderful, with the feeling and thinking Maggie in the center of the spectrum.

Of this film that features two theorists as characters, one takeaway comes from Yogi Berra: In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is. Another takeaway is from Isaac Newton: An object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Miller gives us the physics of relationships—and the delight of watching her once-balanced heroine regain her equilibrium.

At one point in the film, an intellectual admirer of John’s says, “No one unpacks commodity fetishism like him.” One might say of Miller that no one unpacks modern arrangements like her.

“Maggie’s Plan” is Miller’s fifth feature in 20 years. She is representative of many female filmmakers in the United States who work less frequently—and for less remuneration—than their male counterparts. For the past year the Equal Economic Opportunity Commission has been investigating gender disparities in Hollywood, which is the subject of a forthcoming Truthdig series.

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