Maggie’s Plan (2016)
Director: Rebecca Miller
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph.
Plot: Maggie ‘s plan to have a baby on her own is derailed when she falls in love with John, a married man, destroying his volatile marriage to the brilliant and impossible Georgette. But one daughter and three years later, Maggie is out of love and in a quandary: what do you do when you suspect your man and his ex wife are actually perfect for each other?
Maggie’s Plan (2015) is the latest adequately budgeted New York independent to hit cinema screens starring Greta Gerwig, and this time she’s has got the A-List company of Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore. Directed by Rebecca Miller (The Ballad of Jack and Rose – 2005, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee – 2009) and adapted from the novel of the same name by Karen Rinaldi, this Sony Pictures Classics release is one half dark comedy and one half relationship drama, but can summed up in one fell swoop by one very simple yet divisive word: quirky.
Set against the backdrop of New York and following the lives of a group of academics, novelist Karen Rinaldi and screenwriter Rebecca Miller were able to flex their intellect with some complex exchanges of dialogue filled with artistic references, yet the story seemed to fall to pieces throughout the second act, and the focus of the earlier stages of the movie seemed to be completely absent by the picture’s end. Titular character Maggie (Gerwig) was clearly the centerpiece of the production, yet the character’s development seemed to be stunted approximately two thirds into the film when the development of supporting characters John (Hawke) and Georgette (Moore) suddenly became the focus. It made for a disjointed presentation through which Greta Gerwig’s performance suffered.
Gerwig has established herself over the past 10 years or so as the Queen of the New York Independent Scene, with a series of incredible and individualistic performances at the centre of many of the area’s top indie movies. Maggie’s Plan looked to utilise this by centering its story of female empowerment, under the tutelage of a female novelist, and a female screenwriter and director, around the feminist star, which was understandably enticing for Gerwig but ultimately unsuccessful in the most disappointing of ways, especially regarding the issues with the presentation of the story itself. Gerwig’s character was layered and in charge of her own destiny, and the actress grew into the role after a shaky start, but the removal of focus from the titular character really damaged what could have been another special entry in Gerwig’s career; one can only assume that this came courtesy of the marketability of the supporting talent – Julianne Moore and Ethan Hawke – whose screen time was dramatically increased courtesy of this shift in focus. It’s not that the characters of Hawke and Moore were uninteresting either, in fact they were far from it – they were each flawed and ultimately human characterisations – but their story was a side-note to the mission of the movie’s protagonist; a mission statement. They should have each become the tools of Maggie’s mission, the result of their actions being manipulated or not manipulated by Gerwig’s character depending on what the movie wanted to say about the lead character’s controlling traits, yet the film seemed to divert too far from this and in doing so forgot to truly question the protagonist’s mission or her character in any sort of in-depth and meaningful way. As a character piece, which is what Maggie’s Plan can be assumed to be given that the title of the movie includes the character’s name and the first half of the movie was almost entirely devoted to presenting said character, the picture fails in concluding the titular character’s development. Her needs are not met, though her wants are, and this leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth despite the way the director Rebecca Miller tried to tie a neat bow on everything in the closing moments of the picture.
What the film lacks in focus with regard to the story, it has in spades regarding the image of the picture. The intricacies of mise-en-scene with regard to interior shots particularly was pleasing and filled with many an ‘intellectual’ reference, the least of which being the books Maggie stored upon the shelves she’d filled her entire apartment with. The setting was an intricate hipster paradise of intellectual material and organised clutter, providing a series of spaces through which Gerwig’s character could evolve, telling the visual story of her character’s sacrifice of passion-subjects and, in many ways, her vision of herself courtesy of the arrival of the unexpected and almost entirely un-needed man in her life. By comparison, the interiors of her partner’s family home or, as the film develops, his office within Maggie’s home, is noticeably bland. It’s as if Maggie was filled with character and intricacies, the most prevalent of which were creativity and self-discovery – quite the ‘quirky’ traits if ever there were some – and her partner John (Hawke) was every bit as bland, average, uninteresting and lacking in creativity as his name would suggest. Hawke’s performance complimented this as one of many very good performances in the picture.
Ethan Hawke’s supporting role as the ‘typical man’ who follows his sex-drive was enhanced by how the character legitimised bad decisions within his own head via a distorted and romanticised, albeit intellectual, sense of love and self-fulfillment; though it was delivered with the sort of class that has become the norm for this established performer. It did, however, seem like he was being tarnished as a one dimensional self-centered person of whom other male characters, most notably Travis Fimmel’s incredibly likeable Guy, were used as one dimensional oppositions to, in order to fully establish the John character. It was the sort of shallow and convenient writing that no amount of intelligent dialogue and darkly humourous comedy could cover up, at least in its entirety. In comparison, the lead female character Maggie was quite complex, yet her complexities were opposed by the almost stereotypical ‘up-tight European’ that Julianne Moore played. Moore was impressive and believable in the role, a feat accomplished despite the creative decision to place an accent of varying quality onto the delivery of her Danish character’s dialogue, but the character remained under-developed. Secondary characters Tony and Felicia, played by New York independent comedy royalty Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph respectively, were similarly charged, with the latter being the typically supportive best friend of the protagonist and the former being the movie’s representation of the ‘modern man’ of whom would look after his children, clean his family home and so on. They each acted as relief from the movie’s more intense or important moments, allowing for a moment of clear thought before the next big part of the picture, but they each suffered from the lack of development that all but Maggie suffered from in this film.
This lack of character development, of course, did not leave much for each of the performers to dig their teeth into, though each of them performed admirably despite such a limitation, and when this was coupled with the lack of true focus with regard to the story as a whole, it made for a movie that seemed too long in parts. It’s not that it was too long, because it most definitely was not considering the amount of character development the final product needed, but it’s that what was shown was lacking any severity and the amount of time the movie spent on characters with less development seemed unnecessary, unfocused, a total distraction from what the true purpose of the movie was.
Underneath the structural issues of the story and the presentation of the characters were a few well developed elements. The use of the image, as referenced earlier in this piece, was a particular highlight, and the use of each element within the image (especially wardrobe and set design) was creative yet appropriate for the characters and their situations. The soundtrack was typically ferocious in its hipster appeal and the selection of talent was of huge benefit to the picture, too. If only the movie had moved to focus on Maggie’s relationship to her daughter, the development of Maggie as a person or even Maggie’s somewhat sick enjoyment in controlling everyone’s lives, the picture could have been a real success. But, in the end, it felt like an unfocused mess that was cluttered with too many recognisable faces in under-developed roles and too many large and different ideas that were impossible to explore in any real depth throughout the picture’s run-time.
Conclusively, Maggie’s Plan is the sort of New York independent that I’m sure many a fan of that strand of American cinema will enjoy as an easy watch, and some may even grow attached to Gerwig’s character Maggie courtesy of the time she spends on screen in the earlier parts of the film and the typically identifiable performance from Greta Gerwig, but this Rebecca Miller film will not be going down as a classic by any means. There was simply too much that it didn’t do right enough.