When it comes to romantic comedies involving Greta Gerwig, one is usually guaranteed an enjoyable moviegoing experience. This tends to stem from the fact that Gerwig’s characters, ranging from Frances Halladay in Frances Ha to Brooke in Mistress America, always end up straying from the anticipated norm by the conclusion of the narrative. And now that one has come to expect the unexpected from Gerwig, it’s a shame to see her turn to Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, which appears, on the surface, to be more of the actress’ usual “quirky” fare.
Though Miller stands apart as a screenwriter, director and–before the latter two professions–actress, one can’t help but consider that having Arthur Miller as a father and Daniel Day-Lewis as a husband has influenced some of the ease with which she puts out certain material. And possibly some of the lack of grasp of reality, hence the daffy turn Maggie’s Plan takes by the second act, after Maggie (Gerwig) fulfills the curse she feels she’s always prone to: falling out of love. Seminal to the plot of the narrative is her Quaker background, so wonderfully illustrated by the costume design of Malgosia Turzanska that it’s almost not even necessary for her to mention this to John (Ethan Hawke), the professor of ficto-critical anthropology she’s been spending more time with. Indeed, so much of this increasingly less latent background colors the bizarre moral compass of Maggie, including sleeping with John in spite of him being married to author and department chair at Columbia, Georgette (Julianne Moore, who is really what makes this movie worth seeing). But she does so because John is unhappy, and she feels she can rescue him–nurture him enough so that he has the confidence to write a fiction novel based largely on his narcissistic, overbearing wife.
After getting the lowdown on his situation from a fellow colleague, Felicia (Maya Rudolph–sporting a signature “What Would Jesus Buy” t-shirt, Maggie initially decides to keep her distance, opting to go through with her plan to accept a sperm donation from a guy named Guy (Travis Fimmel) she went to college with. Though her best friend, Tony (Bill Hader), who is, incidentally, Felicia’s husband, strongly advises her against preemptively having a baby, Maggie is convinced the time is now for her to be a mother. But as John continues to grow enamored of her, or rather, the interest she takes in his work in comparison to Georgette, he finds the gumption to unbutton her long-ass nightgown and tell her he loves her and that he wants to be the one to give her a baby. On this note, act one ends, and we dive right into the non-glamorousness of three years later, when Maggie is in the full-tilt swing of not only being a mother to her own child, Lily (Ida Rohatyn), but also one to John’s other two kids, Paul (Jackson Frazer) and Justine (Mina Sundwell). Her sudden role from accomplished “bridge between art and commerce” at the university where they work is reduced to doting caretaker, including when it comes to accommodating John and the incessant work on his novel–which Maggie doesn’t even seem to enjoy after all those early months of encouragement.
Saddled with the dilemma of leaving him now that she’s been given the complete portrait of his own narcissism, formerly tempered by Gerogette’s, Maggie decides the more ethical thing to do would be to “give him back to his wife,” who, underneath it all, does still love him (this, in spite of releasing a tell-all, of sorts, about John’s infidelity called Bring Back the Geisha). Once again, Tony tries to intervene as the voice of reason, making her cry by throwing her seeming faux moralism back in her face by saying it always ends up hurting someone. Nonetheless, Maggie goes through with the plan, setting off a chain reaction that, ultimately, makes for an extremely lackluster–and even cliche–ending. But at least Miller tried to reinvent the wheel of the conventional rom-com. Not many writer-directors even bother.