Control, narcissism and love mix with oddball results
Maggie's Plan (2016)
Directed by Rebecca Miller
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore
“Every relationship has a rose and a gardener. She's the rose. I'm the gardener, but I don't have a green thumb.” This honest utterance poetically sums up writer-director Rebecca Miller's (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) new romantic comedy Maggie's Plan.
Set in a New Yorker's New York of frozen park benches, street Shakespeare performers and illegal parking spots outside Danish-American schools, the film jumps right into a conversation between Maggie (Greta Gerwig of Mistress America, Frances Ha) and her friend Tony (played by an aggressively odd Bill Hader). The topic of discussion is Maggie's decision to have a child on her own, since she wants one now but believes herself incapable of staying in love with anyone for longer than six months. The plan is to inseminate herself with the help of an old friend, Guy (an awkward but earnest Travis Fimmel from “Vikings”), who is a pickle salesman—ahem, sorry—a pickle entrepreneur. Despite her friend's protests, Maggie forges ahead.
Around that same time, she crosses paths with John (Ethan Hawke of Training Day, Before Sunrise), a “bad boy” of ficto-critical anthropology (don't ask) and aspiring fiction novelist who works at the same school as her. Word around the school is that his wife is a “glacial” and “terrifying” monster. Their paths soon cross again and John asks Maggie to read the first chapter of his novel. They bond, with John clearly enjoying the attention he does not receive in his marriage to his famous anthropologist spouse, Georgette (a Danish accent-tinged Julianne Moore, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Still Alice).
On the big night, Guy oddly but romantically delivers his DNA contribution, and Maggie inseminates herself in the bathtub only to have the process ruined by having to stand up to open the door because John shows up at her apartment. They fall in love and a couple years later, Maggie finds that she has become the “gardener,” supporting John's now self-absorbed novel-writing lifestyle while mothering both their daughter and John's two children from his previous marriage. Despite her best efforts, she is tired of John. He was more likable as the trampled husband of the monster. Wanting to break up with him, but also being the good-intentioned person that she is, Maggie devises a plan to get John and Georgette back together so that everyone can have their happy ending. A oddball series of relationships ensue between Maggie, John and Georgette, leaving each character to wonder at some point, “What the fuck are we doing!?”
The characters are built up not only through the excellent abilities of the actors, but also through telling wardrobes and quirky dialogue. Maggie has a good heart but is often called “sort of stupid” and innocent by others. She's controlling but only because she wants everyone to be happy. Her Quaker goodness is highlighted by her abysmal style—imagine the frumpiest grandma outfits and then make them 10 times more hideous. Georgette, on the other hand, is rather cold, fickle and narcissistic in stark topknots and pastel mangy roadkill-looking sweaters. But she's honest and likable for that. Lastly, John is bland with dull clothing and eternal bedhead, as only a true suffering husband type can be.
Funny one-liners and strange antics keep the story moving along even if hazy clouds of anthropology jargon glaze the eyes every once in a while. Each iteration of the tangled relationships makes the viewer wonder if this will be the last reconfiguration, eventually making one face the reality that there is never an end. It's not Disney where the story is over after the wedding. In real life, people change, they fall in and out of love; as Georgette says, people have a momentum all their own that cannot be controlled.
The biggest annoyance in the film is also one that points to the trials and tribulations of the broader issue: love. It doesn't make sense. From nearly the beginning, it is clear to see where Maggie's plan goes wrong. Why would someone fall in love with a bland, self-absorbed married man when they could be with someone who can speak with poetry and awe about the cosmic beauty of math? Why would someone want a lover who calls them “capable” when they could have one that thinks they're absolutely beautiful when they're dancing weirdly all alone? Who knows? It's love. When control is proven useless, there is only the option to “embrace the mystery of the universe.”