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A quasi-homewrecker has a change of heart in Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, in which Greta Gerwig learns, after much frustration, to stop trying to steer her life and let destiny do its job. A happy change of gears for the filmmaker, who has spent most of her career to date in more dramatic territory, the picture is one part vintage Woody Allen, a few parts screwball-era comedy of remarriage and a vigorous shake of Gerwig herself, without whose particular spirit — “so pure,” as an admirer puts it here, and “a little stupid” — this scenario might have trouble getting off the ground. The pic will play very well with the actress’s fan base, while moviegoers who find her eccentric manner sometimes hard to take will welcome her more restrained performance here.
Gerwig plays the title character, a New School employee who befriends a new adjunct prof, John Harding (Ethan Hawke). Harding is married to his intellectual rival, Georgette (Julianne Moore), an ambitious Dane whose career has overshadowed John’s dreams to publish a novel. Maggie’s enthusiasm for his writing is intoxicating, and before long he declares his love, leaves his wife and starts a family with Maggie, who had recently decided she was going to have a child whether she found a partner or not.
Jumping forward a couple of years, we find the once-neglected husband taking his own turn at self-absorption. John writes all day, while Maggie supports him and cares for their child and the two he had with Georgette. She likes being a mom, but resents being taken for granted while the squeaky wheel in John’s life — Georgette, who still calls daily to vent about her career — gets so much attention. While sharing her frustrations with an old college boyfriend (scene-stealer Bill Hader) and his wife (Maya Rudolph), Maggie starts to wonder if she could just return this poached husband to his original owner.
Sporting a thick, haughty accent that might initially make her character seem one-note, Moore is virtuosic when Maggie comes to Georgette to propose engineering a reunion John will believe was accidental. She retains her air of intellectual superiority while revealing the woman’s loneliness and, independent of either, an immediate liking for her younger rival that is balanced by her sense of being wronged. Georgette agrees to the plan, arranging for John to speak at a Canadian academic conference she’s attending; in a happenstance she couldn’t have planned better with God’s help, a snowstorm knocks out the conference’s power supply and traps the still-hot-for-each-other exes in a remote, cozy hideaway.
From here, the plan plays out as plans generally do: not as planned. The film’s comedy softens to allow each participant in this triangle (and the kids they care for) to suffer some credible emotional blowback, but doesn’t get as bogged down as an actual rom-com would. Occasionally, a scene of Maggie joking around with her ginger-haired daughter makes it seem that this one relationship is the film’s entire point, that all the other stuff is just very enjoyable window dressing. And, as the film’s uncommonly satisfying closing moments prove, it is. Maybe Maggie was right to take fate into her own hands at every step — just not in the way she thought.
Production companies: Round Films, Rachael Horovitz Productions
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph
Director-screenwriter: Rebecca Miller
Producers: Rachael Horovitz, Damon Cardasis, Rebecca Miller
Executive producers: Philip Stephenson, Temple Williams, Lucy Barzun Donnelly, Alexandra Kerry, Michael J. Malis, Susan Wrubel
Director of photography: Sam Levy
Production designer: Alexandra Schaller
Costume designer: Malgosia Turzanska
Editor: Sabine Hoffman
Music: Michael Rohatyn
Casting director: Cindy Tolan
Sales: John Sloss, Laura Lewis
Not rated, 98 minutes
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