Sundance 2016: ‘Maggie’s Plan’ is a Decent Screwball Comedy Once it Realizes Itself

Rebecca Miller’s first film since 2009’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Maggie’s Plan is a film that unfortunately takes quite a bit of time to find it’s footing, but when it does, evolves into a clever and subversive type of screwball comedy. Miller’s script follows young university worker Maggie (Greta Gerwig) as she has an affair with a married adjunct professor and would-be novelist John (Ethan Hawke). 3 years later, they are married with a 2-year old girl, and have part-time custody of John’s kids from his marriage with academia superstar Georgette (Julianne Moore). Maggie starts to see the beginning of the end of her relationship with John, and rather than leave him, she and Georgette devise a plan to make John fall back in love with Georgette.

What’s unfortunate about the film is how unsure of itself it is for the first third. While it does have a lot to setup in order to make the screwball aspects of the film work, it ultimately feels fairly aimless in its opening scenes. Sequences consist of Gerwig doing her “quirky, whimsical academic” archetype she excels at, and Hawke plays not too far from his Before Trilogy character as they wax pseudo-philosophically on mundanity and the novel he’s trying to write. They’re supposed to be acting out everyday problems of existentialism, but all they’re really doing is acting out problems only seemingly rich white people can afford to have.

What makes Maggie’s Plan start to come together is when it embraces the absurdity, and kind of awful intentions, of what Maggie wants to achieve. It’s not too far off from something you might see in an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: “The Gang Gets Divorced Again.” Miller shifts gears, going full throttle into Maggie’s narcissism and absurdity in her and Georgette’s perverse version of The Parent Trap. Once it stops wanting us to feel like we should be able to wholly relate to Maggie and instead revels in her semi-delusion, the film becomes the contemporary screwball comedy that it deserves to be.

Don’t get me wrong, nobody can play Greta Gerwig better than Greta Gerwig, but she doesn’t begin to shine until Miller lets her play the more absurd and deranged sides of her character once she hatches the plan to trade off John to Georgette. It’s a joy watching her face as she concocts the idea, and a great laugh erupts when you realize that she’s convinced herself this can work. It’s fun watching Ethan Hawke play the type of role Cary Grant would have played if Ernst Lubitsch directed the film. John spends the film with two women who he honestly probably doesn’t deserve, and similar to Gerwig’s performance, he doesn’t really shine until he’s inserted into the screwball archetype of the film.

You could put Julianne Moore in just about anything and she’ll elevate the film. She plays Georgette with a harsh, sort of ridiculous Danish accent without losing the sort of emotional authenticity that can be so easily lost in accents. She commands each scene with a certain sort of cold ferocity that plays well against Gerwig’s casual yet awkward way of interacting. Watching the two together results in the film’s best scenes. Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader are always welcome presences. I also suppose it’s nice to see Travis Fimmel play a role that doesn’t require medieval armor too. All in all, Maggie’s Plan is among the more middling films to play this year, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its tremendous strengths in its contemporary screwball machinations. If only it had realized that sooner.

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