Like the vintage comedies of Woody Allen, Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan is nearly as much about its elite New York City milieu as about its characters, who are defined as much by why they’ve been drawn to New York, and how it shapes them, as by their own thoughts and behaviors. Miller’s satire of this pocket universe may well be the most memorable aspect of Maggie’s Plan, a not-unpleasant 98 minutes that’s nevertheless understocked with comic zest and thematic incisiveness.
Writer-director Miller (Personal Velocity) starts out with a good idea, sparked by Karen Rinaldi’s unpublished story: what if a woman forged a relationship with a married man, then decided the best thing for all involved would be to reunite him with his ex? Miller’s Plan, then, constitutes something of an anti-romantic comedy, starring the queen of the New York indie, Greta Gerwig, as the titular best-laid-planner gone awry. Just as Maggie determines to enlist a sperm donor—Travis Fimmel’s Brooklyn-based pickle entrepreneur, fitted with the man-child moniker Guy Childers—and begin her single motherhood, she meets John (Ethan Hawke), a co-worker at the New School and “one of the bad boys of fictocritical anthropology.”
Maggie and John hit it off, under the artificially inflated bonding of him flatteringly lending her his in-progress novel and her providing him with flattering feedback. Soon enough, they fall into each other’s arms and subsequently agree to be a couple. But John has kids and, more troublingly, a wife, the “glacial and terrifying” Columbia University tenured professor Georgette (Julianne Moore). Miller and Moore (previous collaborators on The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) have some fun indulging and renegotiating the “ice queen” archetype, here the Danish-bred author of a book with the post-post-feminist title “Bring Back the Geisha.”
It’s these tart little filigrees of self-satisfied New York academic-and-artisan culture that have the most conviction in Maggie’s Plan: the “handcrafted” pickles of Guy’s trendy Brooklyn Brine, John’s book “Rituals of Commodity Fetishism at the Tail-End of the Empire,” Georgette’s collection/décor of masks. But if Miller lacks the farcical energy for screwball comedy and Woody’s skill with a punchline, she does orchestrate enough amusement to keep the picture percolating (I’m partial to the moment when Maggie wonders aloud, about self-possessed people like herself, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the cactus never gets…watered?”).
In pursuing her first out-and-out comedy, Miller has a strong core cast in the ever-reliable Gerwig, Hawke, and Moore, and also has the good sense to install two naturally funny actors, SNL vets Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph, as Maggie’s no-filter married friends. Maggie’s Plan may not stay with you for long, but for as long as it lasts, you’ll stay with it just fine.