Maggie’s Plan (2016)

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Has there been an actress in recent years as divisive as Greta Gerwig? Many people will not know who I am referring to, mainly because she has almost exclusively stuck to independent comedies. She is certainly an acquired taste, and while many people think she is the very definition of why independent cinema is becoming less original, I actually quite like her. I don’t worship at the altar of Greta like many of her fans do, but I think she is one of the more original and endearing figures in independent cinema today, and even though I do often find myself seeing her as overblown and sometimes even cringing at her overblown persona a lot of the time, I do like her quite a bit. It is bizarre to start this review discussing Greta Gerwig, but I feel she is the reason people either will or won’t watch this film, which is actually delightful and a welcome addition to the crop of great independent romantic comedies of the past few years.

In Maggie’s Plan, Gerwig plays the titular Maggie, who wishes to be a strong and independent woman, but also desires to have a child. She decides she is going to convince a friend (Travis Fimmel) to make a “donation”, so that she can have a child she can raise by herself. However, as with many similarly-themed films, Maggie encounters someone who changes her mind – John Harding (Ethan Hawke), who is a highly intelligent and very much married college professor in the midst of a midlife crisis. Falling for the quirky and lovable Maggie, John runs away with her, and a few years later, they are married, and have a child of their own. Maggie got what she wanted, but at what cost? Discovering that love is not what she desired, she hatches a plan to reunite John with his ex-wife – the only problem is that John’s ex-wife happens to be Georgette (Julianne Moore), a vicious German philosophy expert and revered intellectual, who is always one step ahead of everyone, especially Maggie and John, who she scorns and respects (and in the case of John, relentlessly adores).

Independent cinema does not have any shortage of these kinds of films, and there isn’t much that sets Maggie’s Plan apart from any other indie film with this kind of subject matter – and to be perfectly honest, on merely a storyline basis, Maggie’s Plan is absolutely nothing remarkable and memorable, and if anything, it just seems as vapid and dull as many other indie comedies that come and go without making too much of an impact. It does try and subvert the romantic comedy cliches that cinema has become dependent on, and the story does make some interesting statements on the role of women in society today, and how the world is changing – but other than that, what else can we say that this film has that other films do not? There are quite a few things that make Maggie’s Plan something wonderful.

First of all, the characters. Now we need to consider that Rebecca Miller directed this film, and she just happens to be the daughter of Arthur Miller, perhaps the greatest American playwright of all time – and much like her father, Rebecca shows considerable ability to develop her characters and make them far more than stereotypical indie tropes. Miller takes something pretty standard and unremarkable, and through careful construction of interesting characters, and her obvious avoidance of any cliched characterization, makes some fascinating and highly original characters – and while the skeletons of many indie comedies remain – the quirky lead character, the conflicted intellectual in a mid-life crisis, the wise best friend and the vicious foreign adversary – Maggie’s Plan does manage to make them far more than what we often see in these kinds of films. Part of what makes Maggie’s Plan so special is the fact that the characters are so well-developed, and while we think we are seeing familiar characters from many other indie comedies, our expectations are subverted to the fact that Miller created some truly wonderful characters.

Gerwig is actually pretty great here – and she sheds the endlessly quirky and often irritating persona that defined her in Frances Ha (as much as I loved that film, Gerwig’s personality did get a bit much), and it didn’t help that she went way too far with Mistress America last year. In Maggie’s Plan, she displays considerable maturity and creates a serious but still very fun character. It may be her best performance since Damsels in Distress, and I hope Gerwig continues to get better, because she deserves to have a wider range, and with films like Maggie’s Plan, she does display it. She needs to try and stay away from Noah Baumbach (which may be a bit difficult, considering they are apparently in a relationship), because while the work well together, he doesn’t bring out the best in Gerwig like he has with other performers.

Ethan Hawke proves himself to be as reliable and likable as ever before – I just wish more people gave him the leading roles he deserves in these kinds of films. His collaborations with Richard Linklater, particularly on Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, are some of the greatest cinema has ever seen. While Maggie’s Plan doesn’t give Hawke much to challenge his acting abilities, he is as reliable as he has always been, and its amazing to see him in a great role like this again. However, the true star of this film is Julianne Moore – perhaps one of the most talented and universally beloved actresses of all time, Moore turns out a hilarious and deeply entertaining performance as the German ex-wife of Hawke’s character. I found myself falling in love with Julianne Moore all over again after seeing this film, and I have absolutely no doubt that Moore will be seen as one of the most important actresses to ever work, and a film like Maggie’s Plan simply proves that she is able to do any kind of film, and steal the show away from the leads. Moore is just wonderful here, and her amazing performance is a major reason to see this film.

Maggie’s Plan is such a fantastic film. I am not quite sure I’d list it as one of my favorites of the year, it certainly is a great approach to the independent romantic comedy. Gerwig, Hawke and particularly Moore are great in it, and the film itself manages to fix many problems that plague the indie film industry. Maggie’s Plan is the kind of film we get every year, whether we ask for it or not, but unlike many lesser efforts, this one actually has quite a bit of heart, and it takes a familiar story and turns it into something special. I do think Maggie’s Plan is the kind of film that goes by unnoticed, but it is still something that I think should be seen by more people. Seek it out if you can, because it is worth it. It may not be flashy, but it has heart and soul, and sometimes, that’s enough.

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