There’s an alternate universe where Noah Baumbach’s films, with their manicured Wes Anderson visual palette and ensemble casts of talented actors both early & late in their respective careers, are a populist hit. In the universe we do live in, however, Baumbach’s films are more consistent crowd-splitters. Titles like The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young, and Mistress America look like cutesy indie dramas from the outside, but harbor a strong, corrosive hatred for their own characters, revealing Baumbach to be much more of a misanthrope than he appears to be. The recent comedy Maggie’s Plan is an interesting window into this alternate timeline where Noah Baumbach’s works are actually the smart, breezy farces they’re advertised to be instead of comedic exercises in pitch black misanthropy (which I also enjoy just fine). Starring & directed by Baumbach collaborators (Greta Gerwig & Rebecca Miller, daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller), Maggie’s Plan is not at all a cutesy indie trifle. It still pokes fun at its characters and indulges in morally & emotionally uncomfortable romantic scenarios. It just does so without tail-spinning its audience into frustrated hatred of every personality presented onscreen. The film is much more interested in the complicated plots of Old Hollywood farces and the general quirks of human folly than tearing down the self-absorption & self-destructive ego of modern ennui. I can’t say it’s exactly a better film for it, but it’s certainly a kinder & more enjoyable one.
Greta Gerwig stars as a young East Coast Academic™ who wants to become a mother under her own terms, a plan that involves a sperm donation from a crazy-eyed hipster who’s made a career for himself as a “pickle entrepreneur” (just about the most Brooklyn thing I’ve ever heard of). The plot is disrupted when Gerwig’s protagonist falls passionately in love with another East Coast Academic™, played by Ethan Hawke, (whom I somehow confused for Kevin Bacon for the opening few scenes). The problem is that he happens to be a married man. The dangerous sensation of this blossoming affair combines with several possible love triangle plots to threaten an eyeroll-worthy romcom yarn, but Maggie’s Plan is much smarter than anything I feared it might become. Instead of the complications of single mother pregnancy and the moral dilemmas presented by romantic jealousy, the movie tackles the ways love & desire are messy, with outcomes that cannot be controlled and the way romantic partners, especially men, can take their significant others for granted, treating them almost like an employee without giving it any thought. There’s no will-they-won’t-they series of missed connections and tangled misunderstandings here. Miller’s farce is much more about the way characters uncomfortable with loosening control over their messy personal lives have to learn to let go and let life happen naturally than it is about who they’ll be sleeping with by the time the credits roll.
Movies with this intimate of a narrative & limited visual scope obviously rely heavily on the strength of their cast to sell their charms and Maggie’s Plan is overloaded with talent. Gerwig does her usual thing, but with a much more endearing spin on her characters’ total lack of self-awareness. Hawke is perfectly cast as the smartest idiot in the room. They’re backed up by a long list of excellent bit players & single scene cameos: Bill Harder, Maya Rudolph, Wallace Shawn, Kathleen Hanna. And that’s not even mentioning Julianne Moore, who very nearly steals the show in an absurd caricature of European academic coldness. Of course, none of this talent would mean a thing without Miller’s superbly constructed script, which manages to feel intelligently assembled & well-considered in every moment while still working in punchlines as inane as “I don’t want you to have a baby with the pickle man.” There are a couple stray choices that make Maggie’s Plan feel distinct even as a small budget indie, including a time jump that completely upends its initial plot trajectory & a surprise over-abundance of 60s dancehall reggae on its soundtrack. It’s the cast Miller assembles and the ways her script arranges those chess pieces to craft a newfangled version of an Old Hollywood farce that makes the film worth a recommendation, though. It’s all intricately plotted stuff made to somehow feel like effortless charm.
It’s probably not at all fair of me to conjure Noah Baumbach’s name in this review, as Rebecca Miller has had a long, self-driven career long before recently joining forces with that divisive filmmaker. It’s likely that Gerwig’s presence is a lot of what recalls his work here. I really do think that anyone on the verge of liking Baumbach who finds his general misanthropy difficult to stomach would likely enjoy Maggie’s Plan, though. It’s just reminiscent enough of his storytelling style to draw the comparison, but so distinctly on its own wavelength that it won’t feel like an empty exercise for those who devotedly follow his career. I’m now curious myself to double back and watch some of Miller’s previous works to see if this is a vibe she’s always worked within. Maggie’s Plan at the very least proves her capable of turning small, familiar parts into memorably distinct, endearing pictures. It’s a lot rarer than it sounds.