Maggie’s Plan (2015)
Director: Rebecca Miller
Screenwriters: Rebecca Miller, Karen Rinaldi
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 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 be summed up in one fell swoop by one very simple yet divisive word: quirky.
Set against the backdrop of New York City and following the lives of a group of academics, novelist Karen Rinaldi and screenwriter Rebecca Miller are able to flex their intellect with some complex exchanges of dialogue filled with artistic references, yet the story seems to fall to pieces throughout the second act and the focus of the earlier stages of the movie seem to be completely absent by the picture’s end. Titular character Maggie (Gerwig) is clearly the centrepiece of the production, yet her development seems to be stunted approximately two thirds into the film when the development of supporting characters John (Hawke) and Georgette (Moore) suddenly becomes the focus. It’s a disjointed story, and as such Greta Gerwig’s performance suffers.
Gerwig has established herself over the past ten 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 independent movies. Maggie’s Plan looked to utilise this by centring its story of female empowerment (under the stewardship of a female novelist, and a woman 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.
Greta 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 in any kind of meaningful way.
What the film lacks in focus, it has in spades regarding its visual language. The intricacies of the 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 organised clutter, providing a series of spaces through which Maggie could evolve, telling us of her sacrifice of passion-subjects and, in many ways, her vision of herself courtesy of the arrival of the unexpected and almost entirely unneeded 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 is filled with character, intricacies – the most prevalent of which is creativity and self-discovery – and her partner John (Hawke) is oppositionally bland, average and uninteresting.
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, pseudo-intellectual, sense of love and self-fulfilment; 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-centred person whom other male characters, most notably Travis Fimmel’s incredibly likeable Guy, were presented as one dimensional opposites to. It was the type of shallow and convenient writing that no amount of pretentious dialogue and darkly humorous 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 her 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 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’ whom would look after his children, clean his family home and so on. They each acted as relief from the film’s more intense or important moments, allowing for periods of clear thought before the next big narrative turn, but they each suffered from the lack of development that all-but Maggie suffered from in this film.
Underneath the structural issues of the story and the presentation of the characters were a few well developed elements. The use of the image was a particular highlight, and the use of each element within the image (specifically wardrobe and set design) was creative and appropriate. The soundtrack was typically ferocious in its hipster appeal and the selection of talent was of huge benefit to the film as well. If only Maggie’s Plan 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 film could have been a real success. In the end, Maggie’s Plan is an unfocused mess 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.
Maggie’s Plan is the type of New York independent film that many a fan of that strand of American cinema will enjoy as an easy watch. Some may even grow attached to Greta Gerwig’s character courtesy of the time she spends on screen in the earlier parts of the film and the typically relatable performance, 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.