Maggie’s Plan is made up of moments of cringe worthy implausibility and cliché which somehow coexist with moments of cringe worthy realness, of true human connection, however icky they seem, perhaps because they feel too near, too true. These moments are also surprising, existing as they do in an aesthetically sanitised, Ikea-replete world of New York academics who are literally unbelievably wealthy.
Maggie’s Plan begins insufferably, and brings to light everything that, on the surface at least, feels wrong about the film. Maggie, played by Greta Gerwig, appears to represent the sad, inevitable maturation of Frances Halladay, the iconic protagonist of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, and the beguiling, moving face of present day millennial vicissitudes – now a disturbingly cheery thirtysomething. As some bizarre cod-reggae blares, heavy on the horns, we see Maggie help a blind man cross the street. But the film’s beginning, however on the nose, does illuminate an aspect of Maggie’s character that is crucial to the film’s development: she meddles when she thinks she helps. She practically forces the man to take her arm; the music seems too happy and forced – like the protagonist herself.
Throughout the film, director Rebecca Miller continues to explore and undercut the world she has made for her characters, from poking fun at it, and them, to ensuring that it feels real so that we sympathise with its inhabitants. A touching and embarrassing singalong to a folk rendition of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ in a luxury log cabin coexists with a moment in which one character, asked to recount the story of her life which soon turns dark, is disregarded when she asks her interlocutor to return the favour; instead, he offers a hurried response and leaves the house with no explanation.
Maggie’s titular plan is to return John (Ethan Hawke), with whom she had an affair, then a marriage, then a child, to his frosty Norwegian wife Georgette (Julianne Moore), an academic like her husband. These events all unfold laudably swiftly, giving a sense of the often imperceptible passing of time over several years, and the whirlwind nature of Maggie and John’s relationship. This screwball reverse marriage plot is complicated by the presence of a man who, in this postmodern, post-irony New York of course has a beard and purveys artisanal pickles, and donates his sperm to Maggie (before she begins to fall for John), which she doesn’t (or does?) manage to actually use.
Yet what is most admirable about this film, and even unusual, is that we see each character from all sides, and from each other’s perspectives: Maggie’s Plan is about people learning to sympathise with each other, and growing from past mistakes. Miller explores love, marriage, family, and friendship in an admirably complex and warm-hearted way. She retains the classic romantic comedy formula of a trick or plan found out and misunderstood, with all resolved in the end, but it is satisfying because while the ending is happy, it’s tinged with uncertainty, sadness, and messiness. Maggie’s Plan ultimately overrides the inevitable smugness of its yuppie Ikea framework with humanity and authenticity, within it and despite it.
Words by Charlotte Palmer