Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 29, 2015 4:14 pm 
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The independent doormat

Rebecca Miller's sort-of rom-com Maggie's Plan is a bit too into itself and its Manhattan settings, but it has some new things to offer. Miller's turning from drama to comedy. "Vikings" star and former Calvin Klein underwear god Travis Fimmel as a pickle entrepreneur sperm donor (to Grata Gerwig's character). Tragic drama queen Julianne Moore showing how ridiculous and funny she can be as a Danish professor married to Ethan Hawke. (She could as well be Icelandic, with her weird accent and her outfits that might have be on loan from Björk, but that's the point: she's from outer space.) Ethan Hawke for the first time working with a woman director -- and with three women, essentially, since Maggie's Plan is dominated by Georgette (Moore) and Maggie (Gerwig), whom his character, John, gets tossed back and forth between.

The tossing is what bothers me, because Maggie's Plan -- which is as intentionally messy in plot as Maggie herself, a self-reliant, centered young woman with a Quaker background, is organized -- does what too many American rom-coms do today. It loses all sense of narrative structure. And then again, that it winds up where it started out is quite intentional too.

The premise is simple and clear enough. Maggie, wanting to have a child but aware she can't seem to stay with one man more than six months (which, by the way, doesn't quite fit the stable, organized Quaker), looks for a sperm donor (the long-bearded Fimmel). And it's good she calls on a Viking, because all this happens in New York in wintertime -- with a side trip to Quebec for an academic conference. But then she meets John in Washington Square and winds up agreeing to read the manuscript of his novel. She is an administrator at the New School where he is a hottie new teacher. And one thing leads to another, with John's iffy marriage to Georgette derailed by his love affair with Maggie, who falls in love with him as well.

Georgette is an absurdly self-centered academic star herself. The arcane academic specialties of this couple are tossed out for laughs, but they went over my head. ( Something about anthorpology and commodities, for John.) John and Georgette have a couple of noisy, bratty little darlings and an older, grown-up girl who can talk. Wallace Shawn has a one-line appearance, and Bill Hader, who's in touch with his feminine side and delivers lines well, is that rom-com staple, Maggie's longtime pal, with advice.

Jump ahead three years. John and Maggie are married and have their own little girl (what happened to the pickle entrepreneur's Viking's sperm? It got dumped for an early meeting with John). Maggie is so good at organizing things and caring for the three kids, both Georgette and John can pursue their academic work and John can continue with his novel -- except that the novel isn't getting anywhere. And life with Maggie is too perfect. Maggie realizes that John needed to deal with the craziness and self-absorption of Georgette. It kept him from being too absorbed in his work or his novel. We can't really believe in the brilliance of Georgette (only her oddity) or of John, they're just givens. John doesn't sound bright to me. He uses "fuck" a lot, like any ordinary dude.

So Maggie's Plan, the main one, is to get John back with Georgette. And so it turns out that the independent young woman played by Gerwig here is the perfect doormat. As the only stable, responsible partner, that's the role she winds up playing.

I did not find any of this believable, or engaging. Julianne Moore is droll, and Greta Gerwig is, as usual, smooth and natural. Ethan Hawke is glib, but one feels no emotion. I thought of that famous early scene for Hawke in Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams struggles to make his young preppie character learn to emote. It seems he has lost the shyness of that young Hawke but still can't emote. Well over half the movie is devoted to talking about getting Georgette and John back together again. It gets beyond tiresome. But the Lower Manhattan atmosphere and in-jokey stuff about academe make this an original treatment of the kind of confusion of relationships that might be dealt with in a more conventional, less into-itself comedy, like the current Sleeping with Other People. This may be, as they're saying, Rebecca Miller's most successful, widely appealing film, but I liked her less successful ones. This is based on an unpublished novel. Hmmm. . .

Maggie's Plan a longish 96 mins., debuted at Toronto, where Miller apologized for its appearing without a distributor (but isn't that what festivals are for, to find them?). It was also part of the New York Film Festival, where it was screened for this review. The inclusion in the NYFF Main Slate is explicable given its family resemblance to Noah Baumbach's work and inclusion of Baumbach's girlfriend, together with lots of very natural photography of New York whose realistic color contrasted, not unappealingly, with the gloriously dreamlike Ed Lachman Gotham images of another, much better 2015 NYFF film, Todd Haynes's Carol. Maggie has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. Release date 20 May 2016. Metacritic rating a fawning, deluded 75%.

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