In Maggie's Plan, writer-director Rebecca Miller has shown a remarkable resemblance in both tone and subject to Woody Allen. But perhaps it's not that surprising, considering she comes from writing stock even more regal than Allen: her dad, Arthur Miller.
But to praise the 53-year-old filmmaker just for her familial ties is insulting, as she's led a more multi-faceted career than even her father. A fierce advocate for female filmmakers, Miller has embraced writing (both novels and screenplays), directing, producing and even acting, having worked with Alan Pakula and Mike Nichols.
Despite that impressive résumé, she's not a household name. Her directorial debut, Angela, in 1995, was well-received at Sundance, but she's made just four films since. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee was a mild success in 2009, but her latest offering might finally be the one to grab the attention of mainstream audiences. Though it, too, feels small compared to what Miller might be capable of, it strikes a nice comedic tone and, in doing so, may be the vehicle to finally drag Greta Gerwig from quirky-yet-underwhelming independent-film darling to legitimate comedic actress.
Gerwig plays the titular Maggie, whose plan (at least in the first third of the film) is to have a baby by artificial insemination. She picks Guy (Travis Fimmel), a "pickle entrepreneur," as the donor, and comedy ensues. But after promising to be "back in a jiff with the jizz," Guy turns out not to be the right guy.
Enter Ethan Hawke as John, stuck in a dismal marriage to a woman (Julianne Moore) described as a glacial, terrifying narcissist. He falls immediately for the younger Maggie while we fall for them both, as Hawke's acting chops prove a perfect balance for Gerwig's looser but no less lovable charm. But even Moore (with an odd but engaging German accent) garners our sympathy, especially toward the end, when character motivations are turned on their heads. Throw in Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as friends of Maggie and even Wallace Shawn in a cameo, and you have an ensemble reminiscent of some of the more charming 1990s comedies, with a pleasing, unobtrusive score by Michael Rohatyn to boot.
"There's no plan, is there?" John's daughter asks Maggie. Well, maybe Maggie doesn't have a clear plan for her own narrative, but Miller does. Revealing more plot, though, would ruin the surprises of the clever, though slight, three-act script that Miller has concocted (based on a story by Karen Rinaldi). But if you're that reader who demands details, simply think again of Allen: New York academics engaging in spirited, intellectual and often hilarious conversations about love and life.
"Love is messy," Hader's character tells Maggie. "It's illogical, [and] it's wasteful."
Those aren't exactly profound observations, but Maggie's Plan does a competent job of depicting a world in which those ideas are both painfully and comedically true. And though the film feels a bit like a stepping stone to something greater for Miller, the stone is surprisingly polished.
3 out of 5 stars