Writer and director Rebecca Miller deftly weaves her way around romantic comedy conventions and clichés in the enormously appealing Maggie’s Plan. Miller’s fifth feature stars Greta Gerwig as the titular Maggie, a sensible, thirty-something New York academic who decides she’s ready to be a mother. Her friend Tony (Bill Hader) suggests that single Maggie will need to find a serious boyfriend first but Maggie disagrees. She’s got the perfect donor lined up in Travis Fimmel’s earnest, adorable Guy, a former mathematician and current pickle entrepreneur with no sense of personal space. Tony is concerned, parenthood is hard work after all, and single parenthood is even harder, but Maggie has a plan and the conviction to follow through with it.
Or at least she does right up until she meets John, an unhappily married anthropology professor and struggling novelist played by a bespectacled, verging on typecast Ethan Hawke. Maggie quickly graduates from offering feedback on John’s novel to sleeping with him, and the film flashes forward to show Maggie and John now married with a three-year-old daughter Lily (though there is some ambiguity surrounding Lily’s true paternity). The couple also share custody of John’s two children from his previous marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore), an eminent Danish academic described by her colleagues as “glacial” and “terrifying”. The ever practical and scrupulously honest Maggie admits to herself that she’s fallen out of love with John, who has proven to be too self-absorbed and quixotic to effectively co-parent, and she concocts a new plan to get John back together with his ex-wife.
Ultimately Maggie comes to realize that her attempts to control her own life and the lives of the people around her through pragmatism and careful planning can sometimes have negative consequences, especially when applied to the irrational arena of interpersonal relationships and romantic love. Though she has the best of intentions, Maggie’s plans inevitably involve emotional and intellectual manipulation, and can therefore hurt the people she was trying to help. Maggie learns to let go of her need to control everything and accept some level of uncertainty in her life. It’s the kind of message that could come off as trite if Gerwig and Miller hadn’t done so much to make Maggie a realistically complex and flawed character with comprehensible motivations for her actions.
Maggie’s Plan might not have worked with anyone other than Gerwig in the lead role. With her giant, incisor-baring smile, endearingly goofy demeanour and gift for conveying introspection, Gerwig makes Maggie sympathetic and relatable where another actress might have made her seem pushy or dumb. Julianne Moore is hilarious as the heavily accented, incredibly intimidating Georgette. Not only does her scathing Scandinavian character get most of the film’s funniest lines, she also benefits from some subtly brilliant costuming work from costume designer Malgosia Turzanska. Miller’s script is typically witty and incisive, though there are a few clunkers among the many spot on lines skewering academic pretension. Additionally, issues with awkward framing and overly static camera work intermittently detract from the film, but for the most part Maggie’s Plan is an engaging, refreshing take on romantic comedy formula.