Rebecca Miller (2016)
Most romantic comedies follow a pretty simple pattern:
- Boy meets girl, and usually in an awkward way. They tend to have contrasting personalities, conforming to the popular but completely unsupported notion that “opposites attract.”
- Boy’s and girl’s friends give comic and unheeded advice, and give the principals someone to bounce their wacky ideas off of.
- Boy and girl break up for some reason, usually some misunderstanding. Often it’s because of some stupid thing that the boy has done, or some mistaken conclusion that the girl jumps to. Somebody will usually leave, and there’s some kind of chase. Hilarity ensues.
- The film climaxes with a major speech or declaration of love by the chaser to the chasee. Billy Crystal catches up with Meg Ryan on New Year’s Eve and convinces her they need to be together. John Cusack plays his boom box. Or similar things happen in lesser movies.
Writer-director Rebecca Miller (The Ballad of Jack and Rose, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee), in a script based on an unpublished novel by Karen Rinaldi, hits most of these points in some way in her new film Maggie’s Plan. Maggie (Greta Gerwig) is a single woman working at The New School in Manhattan as a kind of placement officer, helping design students find jobs in the business world. She is still young but mature, independent and confident, and, having decided she wants to have a baby to raise as a single mother, chooses a sperm donor, Guy (Travis Fimmel)—a shy former classmate who was a math whiz in school and is now a successful pickle entrepreneur (and who, though Maggie is oblivious, seems to have been in love with her for some time).
But Guy is not THE guy. That role falls to Ethan Hawke as John, Maggie’s opposite—an older man whose life is not in such great order. He’s an important scholar—a ficto-critical anthropologist (yes, I’m afraid that really is a thing), a term so jargon-laden that it raises questions about how in tune with the “real world” he might be. He teaches part-time, though he could clearly have a tenured job somewhere, but he essentially lives chiefly off his wife’s income as he works on a novel, which he asks Maggie to read and give him feedback on. So the cute boy-meets-girl thing has the in-control administrator Maggie meeting with the scruffy middle-aged academic novelist. Check romcom requirement number one. Except there is that inconvenient twist that John is married. He declares his love for Maggie in an almost embarrassing scene in which he grovels on his knees while admitting he wants out of his marriage and wants to be with Maggie.
The second criterion of the typical Romantic Film Comedy is met by Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph in supporting roles as Maggie’s amusing and likeable friends Tony and Felicia, who give her sometimes wise and sometimes rash advice—Felicia at one point using the memorable expression “panty-melter” to describe John, and Tony later on berating Maggie for believing that she can impose her will on the world.
As for the necessary third element of the romantic comedy plot—the breakup—this film definitely has it, but here Miller begins to subvert the genre in a significant way. We flash forward three years, to Maggie and John, now married with a daughter, Lily, some nine months shy of three years old. But Maggie finds all is not hearts and flowers in the new life she has crafted for herself: Turns out John’s ex-wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore), is an actual person, and not just an off-screen dark cloud over John’s head. A significant academic in her own right and chair of her department at Columbia, she writes a tell-all memoir attacking Maggie and John. Besides, Maggie has two resentful step-children to help care for, and as for John—he’s the same person he was when she married him, but she is now painfully aware of his negative side: His not spending time with his children but relying on Maggie to do things for him, his living off of her while writing his novel that is growing into something massive and amorphous (wait—didn’t he do that with his old wife?) and his remaining his ex-wife’s confidante who soothes her insecurities and helps her make decisions, so that he is on the phone with her night and day. Oh, and all of this turns Maggie into a nagging wife of the kind John left in the first place.
And so the twist here is that the breakup is one that is engineered. In fact, that’s Maggie’s plan. She meets Georgette, who is a rather cold intellectual played by Moore with a thick Danish accent, but who turns out in the flesh to be no monster at all but a not-unlikeable, incredibly fashion-forward, astute-in-all-things lady. Maggie contrives a plan to end her own misguided marriage and to essentially give John back to his ex-wife, with whom he really seems to belong. And here’s where things really get interesting, as the film breaks out of its formulaic pattern and something new and quirky springs up. Whether we ever get to criterion number four in the romcom formula I’ll let you find out for yourself. No spoilers here!
We might have expected that Miller, daughter of the classic American playwright Arthur Miller, was not going to hand us something that felt clichéd or formulaic. Maggie’s Plan gives us characters who are fully fleshed out and not simply types. They are so rounded, and so well and believably embodied by Moore, Hawke, and Gerwig, that we get something very unusual: a story of infidelity and broken marriage in which none of the characters is portrayed as a villain. Of course, no one is a saint either: Maggie is controlling and pretty sure she knows best; Georgette is condescending and needy at the same time; and John comes off worst, I suppose, in being alternatively passionate and remote, as well as self-centered and enabling to Georgette’s neuroses at the same time. But as Charles Schulz’s Linus used to say, these aren’t faults, they’re character traits. The people in this film are believable humans, the dialogue is smart and comes off like a stage play or a Woody Allen script.
This film deserves to draw some larger audiences. It’s funny and entertaining but it also is a comedy for adult, thinking people. If you know any, recommend this film to them. I hope it’s a precursor to other smart, genre-busting films from the talented Miller. It should be a springboard to more and meatier roles for Gerwig, a current “indie darling.” And if nothing else, it ought to help Karen Rinaldi find a publisher for her novel. Three Shakespeares for this one.