Maggie’s Plan, derided in certain circles as hipster drivel for the intellectually conceited, is a textbook modern screwball, and a very good one at that. Working gleefully with archetypes—adulterous professor John (Ethan Hawke); his stern, academic wife Georgette (Julianne Moore, with an accent!); and the anxious, child-yearning younger woman who catches his wandering eye, Maggie (Greta Gerwig)—and taking full advantage of certain preconceptions about the way men and women in affluent liberal society interact, it sets in motion a familiar plot until the wheels fall off. When they do, director Rebecca Miller puts Maggie in control and turns a sly trick on the Plan’s befuddled man amidst the bouncing pins and springs. He’s played by Ethan Hawke with the daft, heartbreaking sincerity of a Pixar animal, and though he begins as a romantic diversion for Maggie, our real protagonist, she’s happy to take a backseat in the latter half of this breezy movie while he, to frustratingly little avail, works through his marital and professional complications.
There’s nothing funnier to me, at least in romantic comedy, than a flailing man. Even better if he’s flanked by two powerful women, and even better still if they’re the cause of his strife. It’s perhaps an easy liberal feminist punchline, but Miller has the patient, sturdy hand for calculated screwball, and works through the situation from a place far-removed from her endgame (years, in fact), reconfiguring this fickle love triangle a few times before it clicks into place. As for powerful women, she’s got two of the best. Julianne Moore isn’t just good here, she’s terrifying — an ice pick wagered on snowflakes, cutting through anxious, marshmallow-soft romcom situations with a brutal coldness. Most directors want Moore to scream and cry, and since she’s an icon of melodrama, who can blame them? But how clever of Miller to strip her of her trademark, lip-quivering vulnerability and turn her into a burgundy dagger. In one scene, shortly after offering a hot beverage with the warmth of a snow cone, she cuts off a hunk of butter and plops it into a blender of coffee, relishing control over its violent blades and practically driving a terrified Maggie out onto the sidewalk. Moore gives us a thousand and one of these comic microaggressions, certainly too many to enumerate here — it’s as good a straight comic performance I’ve ever seen from her. As for the ambiguity of her accent, surely a boon for dissenters to hang their criticisms on, well, mystery accents are practically native to the genre.
I’ve thought that Greta Gerwig, with her intoxicating blend of anxious idiosyncrasy and sheer screen-flooding presence, might have been a sort of millennial screwball heroine since around Frances Ha. She confirmed that with gusto in Mistress America, which earned its stripes as the best screwball of the last decade on the back of her astonishing vitality, but failed to tell us whether she could really portray the maturity that her eternally childish, complicated characters seem to be edging towards. I think Maggie’s Plan, which sees her in a steady job and, gasp, parenting, is evidence of an evolution. Gerwig can’t be accused of having range, but who needs range when you’re practically a one-woman genre? It’s no accident that the best films by the directors she works with star her — her filmography could almost be read as a lineage, a single character (or character type) graduating into adulthood. Gerwig’s unsteady waddle, the way she splays her hands while talking, rotating them as she struggles to articulate something, her over-pronounced voice and her statuesque, almost Garbo-like facial structure — these are qualities that define the films she stars in, signposts of her actor-auteurism, surely to the chagrin of a quiet minority of detractors who view her as a plaid caricature of a millennial.
Maggie’s Plan is no work of subtle, artful comic genius, nor does even attempt to bend its whitewashed fantasy world of ficto-critical anthropologists, Zizek fanboys and artisanal picklers towards anything resembling reality — but that’s what makes it a screwball comedy. In its own confected world of autumnal fleece and shared book manuscripts and academic conferences, just like the champagne balls and hotel living of yore, it uses a caricature of contemporary affluence as a backdrop for topical interplay between men and women, and its to Miller’s credit that she wields this self-awareness to achieve a sketch of modern relationships that’s purposefully and nimbly mechanical, but still warm and spirited.