No-one does gauche earnestness with as much skill as Greta Gerwig, the gifted American actress who starred in and enlivened the New York-based films Mistress America and Frances Ha in recent years.
She’s back in Manhattan for Maggie’s Plan, a spiky, grown-up romantic comedy written and directed by Rebecca Miller (daughter of the great playwright Arthur Miller, no less). It’s no stretch to claim that this is the luminous Gerwig’s best work to date.
In the title role, she plays an intellectual, well-intentioned but awkward woman of 30, who isn’t above manipulating others to get what she wants.
And what she wants is a baby.
Unattached as she is, she decides to ‘go it alone’ and arranges for an artificial insemination. But with supremely bad timing, this event coincides with Maggie meeting John (Ethan Hawke), an attractive would-be novelist and professor at the college where she works.
He complains about his stern, overpowering wife Georgette, a Danish academic (brilliantly and hilariously played by Julianne Moore), and he is struggling to finish his (clearly overlong) novel.
Maggie offers him escape; they move in together. But all is not what it seems: John turns out to be egocentric and lazy, so Maggie is left to hold down her job and look after her new baby, without much emotional or practical support, all within a newly blended family.
The Plan of the title emerges gradually, when Maggie decides it might be best to engineer a reunion between John and Georgette, and be rid of him.
This kind of scheming might put you in mind of a few Jane Austen heroines, with the wry twist that for all Maggie’s micro-managing other people’s lives, she doesn’t have much idea about human behaviour.
This is the stuff of classic screwball comedy, of course, and it’s delightfully played out by an excellent cast. Gerwig maintains her straight-faced earnestness throughout, and Hawke astutely nails an essentially masculine self-regard.
There are layers of academic jargon in the script, but in truth you don’t need to know what ‘commodity fetishism’ means, or what ‘ficto-critical anthropology’ involves to get the joke: these are people who over-think absolutely everything, and take themselves seriously to a fault.
Maggie’s Plan is relatively short, light on its feet, and rather delightful. It’s enhanced by a terrific cast, down to its bit players, and New York City is captured beautifully as the backdrop to this articulate comedy.
It will elicit smiles of pleasure rather than loud guffaws, and is none the worse for that. As for Gerwig, she seems to get better with every movie she graces.
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