It feels unfair to compare a movie that’s as undeniably good as Maggie’s Plan to lesser contemporaries, but it’s hard not to see it as a corrective to so many other failed relationship comedies set in academia. Finally, one that’s as funny as it is clever, that depicts pompous characters without itself being pompous. It’s the perfect movie for anyone who appreciates Woody Allen’s wit and intellectual dialogue, but always dreamed of pairing them with self-awareness and believable women.
Maggie’s Plan is definitely of a type. It’s one of those movies with the New York City skyline in the poster, a walking-and-talking rom-com where people strike up courtships like they’re in a Paul Simon song: “Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?”
The proverbial “woman who was recently given a Fulbright” is Maggie, played by — who else? — Greta Gerwig, who is so irresistible at playing such similar kinds of characters that I like to think of her as a kind of lady Jack Nicholson for NPR listeners. Maggie is classic Gerwig, every Sunday NY Times crossword player’s dream girl. She’s beautiful and bright and dresses like a Land’s End catalogue. Glib yet innocent, she works at NYU’s New School, a quasi-academic whose job involves “being a bridge between art and commerce.” At one point, this involves explaining a Japanese artist’s prototype for a child’s doll with internal organs to a patent board. Chief among writer/director Rebecca Miller’s skills is being conversant in the language of these ponderous intellectuals (who do exist, trust me) without losing her satirical edge — she’s an empathetic roast master, allowing these characters their humanity without missing a chance to poke fun at them.
Maggie is single, successfulish, and comfortable, and with her biological clock ticking, she decides she doesn’t want to just wait around, hoping to find love with some fast-spermed Larry while her ova whither like craisins in a wind tunnel (my words). Instead, she cooks up a plan to borrow some semen from a particularly brilliant college acquaintance, a math major who of late has become an eccentric pickle magnate. (He’s sensitive and bearded, and sells his pickles to Whole Foods.)
In a lesser movie, this would be the “Maggie’s plan” of the title. Instead, Miller uses it as a feint before hitting us with a much more intriguing plan that I’m not going to spoil here. Suffice it to say, just as she’s about to go through with this plan, another man enters Maggie’s life. John Harding (Ethan Hawke), the “bad boy” of ficto-critical anthropology and “a real panty melter,” according to Maggie’s friend played by Maya Rudolph. Harding, who has written a book called Rituals of Commodity Fetishism at the Tail End of the Empire, enlists Maggie to read his first foray into fiction.
Maggie overhears Harding giving a student writing notes — “stop using ‘like,’ ‘like’ is a language condom” — and loves his book, and the two are instantly smitten, in a way that they both try to intellectualize like the over-educated grandilettantes they are. “I overheard him tell a student that ‘like’ was a language prophylactic!” Maggie gushes to her friend, played by Bill Hader.
Virtually every man in Maggie’s life is in love with her, and the paradox of Maggie is that she can be simultaneously an irresistible sexpot and so f*cking repressed that she won’t say the word “condom.” It’s hard not to interpret this partly as a comment on Greta Gerwig’s arthouse it-girl persona, the way we fetishize her while downplaying any overt sexuality (because that would be crass). The beauty of Maggie’s Plan is that Maggie’s hero status never wavers, giving us Gerwig the way we like to see her, but the movie — especially through Bill Hader’s character — doesn’t shy away from skewering her. That Rebecca Miller (previously of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) acknowledges her protagonist’s affectations makes it even easier to enjoy her. Which goes a long way towards explaining why Maggie’s Plan is so much like so many other movies, but also so much better.
Both Woody Allen’s Irrational Man and Maggie’s Plan gave us “bad boy professors” and May-December romance (much less so in the latter, Gerwig is 32), but Maggie’s Plan actually explores the implications. And depicts such a thing as it might really happen on planet Earth.
Comparisons aside, Maggie’s Plan is just f*cking funny. And not in the usual, beige way of movies like these, that eschews actual punchlines the way it eschews overt sexuality. Miller has a gift for turns of phrase and juxtapositions that really twist the knife. Like when Harding gets a call that his son “twisted his ankle in Eurhythmics class,” which is funny on its own, but even better followed by a smash cut to an establishing shot of the sign outside the school: “The Danish-American School of New York City.” Perfect.