NYFF ’15: “Maggie’s Plan” is a derivative mess

Maggie’s Plan
Written by Rebecca Miller
Directed by Rebecca Miller
USA, 2015

Is it sexist, or at the very least unfair, to compare Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan to the works of Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen, but with a tone of derision? Either way, it’s hard to divorce Miller’s manic wit and preoccupation with middle-class white folks from the filmographies of those aforementioned auteurs. But why is that so? Lots of directors, regardless of gender, can be funny and can focus their stories around said demographic. Perhaps it’s because Maggie’s Plan seems to explicitly emulate the tone those directors often imbue in their films. It seems to be Miller’s intention to make one of those films, sort of, but with a female perspective. It’s admirable, but it doesn’t make for a great film.

The root of the problem might be that the film feels too much like pastiche, and one not even necessarily beholden to Allen or Baumbach. Miller’s distinctive writing voice feels in conflict with the effort she puts into the jokes. They’re often very funny, certainly strengthened by Greta Gerwig as the eponymous Maggie, a young woman attempting to take control of her life; Ethan Hawke as John, the writer/academic she has an affair with and then marries; and Julianne Moore as Georgette, John’s ex-wife and also an academic. But the effort behind each witticism is unintentionally transparent. The strings are detectable not only in the joke writing (“Like is a language condom”), but in the entire construction of the film.

It’s a screwball comedy scenario packed into something that wants to be more insightful, a film that wants to deal with how messy life is, how messy parenting is, how messy love is. It wants to confront the inevitability of destiny, and fate is clearly on Miller’s mind. Woody Allen once quipped, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” That’s the film in a nutshell. And yet, despite its various thematic interests, it feels at once over- and under-written. The ideas are there, but Miller’s articulation of them through her characters often feels facile and actually disinterested. Conversely, the register the actors are performing at with regard to her characters seems inappropriate. Gerwig’s strength as a performer is bring an unmitigated sensitivity to her roles, but in Maggie’s Plan, the situation that Miller writes her into seems to not necessarily warrant the potency of Gerwig’s emotional presence.

It’s consistently screwball in its dialogue, but inconsistently serious in its approach to the actual thematic and allegorical material at hand. It’s hard to discern whether Maggie’s Plan thinks the stakes, both micro and macro, are frivolous or not. But it seems committed, at least, to being relatively skeletal.

The characterizations of Maggie, Georgette, and John verge on caricature, but without the self-awareness it thinks it has. In its attempt to deconstruct and (possibly) satirize these people, again indicative of the indecisive approach, Maggie’s Plan seems to condescend to these characters, not ever really giving them full autonomy, agency, or control over their lives. Yes, the film is about the lack of control, and yet there’s puppetry going on, akin to the sadistic hand of fate. Though the way Miller tries to eschew narrative convention is occasionally striking, it’s often at the cost of emotional cohesion. We get it: life is messy. And so is this film.

The 53rd New York Film Festival runs September 25 – October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Visit the fest’s official website.

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