The more I think about Maggie’s Plan, the more I admire it. It’s a whip-smart send up of romantic comedy clichés that have been popular since Shakespeare. Rebecca Miller’s screenplay (based on a story by Karen Rinaldi) is witty and delightfully self-aware, as are the performances. Greta Gerwig leads with a role that, while somewhat distinct from the ditsy feeling-their-way types she’s portrayed in Hannah Takes the Stairs, Frances Ha, and Mistress America, feels like a natural next step. For any that doubt her range, Maggie’s Plan will be something of an antidote.
Gerwig was last seen in her partner Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America as Brooke, a straight-talking hipsterish socialite (albeit a far less confident one that she seeks to appear). Brooke was presented through the filter of the younger Tracy (Lola Kirke), the voice of the film and the character into whose emotional arc the audience is given most insight. The protagonist of Maggie’s Plan amalgamates the essential Gerwigness – which found its most concentrated outlet in Brooke – with the more sympathy-provoking qualities of a character like Tracy.
Although most of the supporting cast (Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph) are more than capable of headlining a film themselves, Maggie’s Plan is a balanced ensemble piece that makes excellent use of all of them. Maya Rudolph is on hilarious form, a hugely enjoyable spectacle which not only makes me realise anew how much of a shame it is that she’s the straight(er) character in Bridesmaids, but also begs the question – why isn’t she in Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters?
As funny as it is, Maggie’s Plan also contains profound observations and sad truths about life. As this suggests, the Baumbach comparisons don’t live and die with Gerwig. In his 2014 movie While We’re Young, documentary filmmaker Josh (Ben Stiller) butts heads with Adam Driver’s younger creative. In Mistress America, too, the conflict often arises from creative disputes; Brooke holds a years-long grudge against a friend who stole an idea from her, and Tracy is shunned for exploiting Brooke as inspiration for a short story. For the couples in Maggie’s Plan, conflict arises when one party shirks their share of domestic duties in favour of an individual academic or creative pursuit.
Fittingly, many of these films respond to and situate themselves in relation to narrative creations of the past. If Mistress America was a Georgian farce, then Maggie’s Plan is a Shakespearean comedy. A prominently-placed street performer in the first act becomes a conscious signal of this intertextuality. Miller harks back to a former type of ‘romantic comedy’, one associated with Old Hollywood, dry-humour, and continual reference to English theatrical traditions. Even Eli Wallach’s screenwriter character in The Holiday would approve.
Another Hollywood habit Miller has fun with is the tendency to cast high-profile American actresses as European characters. A notable recent example is Naomi Watts’ Russian prostitute in St. Vincent, yet this is a casting sin even the diversity-championing Orange is the New Black is guilty of (Kate Mulgrew as Red). Watching the trailer for Maggie’s Plan might lead you to believe that Julianne Moore’s performance is more of the same. Yet in the absurdist character of Georgette, Miller and Moore have created a beautifully over-the-top self-parody to chastise and ridicule the results of casting bias. And somehow Georgette even manages to convince as a rounded, empathetic character, and thus by the film’s end Miller and Moore have also parodied and broken through the ice-queen archetype.
Maggie’s Plan offers a light, unchallenging viewing experience, yet it contains great depths of observation and character, and subsumes and comments on narrative art old and new. Tight cine-referential structuring is surely the result of long engagement with and close observation of Hollywood romcom clichés, and the knowing, tongue-in-cheek aping of these devices makes Maggie’s Plan greater than the sum of its parts.