The scene where Troubled Male Writer John (Ethan Hawke) confesses his love for Maggie (Greta Gerwig) comes relatively early in Maggie’s Plan. John feels trapped in his marriage to icy, career-focused Georgette (Julianne Moore) and can’t see the ending of his first novel in sight. Maggie is the young, free-spirited woman who’s been reading his novel and inspiring it. After cups of coffee and traipses through Washington Square Park, John falls hard for Maggie, and decides to admit his love to her on the floor of her cramped, book-lined apartment; she loves him too. Through the lens of Woody Allen, or any number of directors who’ve tapped into his particular vein of New York Man Angst, John would be our hero, and this scene would take place at either the halfway point or right at the end depending on whether this is a film of the “love, lose, learn to live” or the “neb makes good” variety respectively. But Maggie’s Plan, released in theaters in 2016 after debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, is no Woody Allen movie, and instead sees that particular set of tropes turned on its head with humor, warmth, and understanding.
Maggie is a young New Yorker who’s made the decision to become pregnant through artificial insemination via her college friend Guy (Travis Fimmel). Enter ficto-critical anthropologist John, and after months of friendship, the two enter into an affair. Flash forward several years, and Maggie is now married to John, with a young daughter and shared custody over John’s two children with ex-wife Georgette. Things should be perfect, but John’s inattentiveness, selfishness, and tendency to spend considerable time talking to Georgette on the phone have put a strain on their marriage. Realizing she no longer loves John the ways she once did and noticing the spark that still lingers between John and Georgette, Maggie sets out on a plan to get John back together with his ex-wife.
The past several years have seen a notable crop of romcoms inverting and calling into question the conventions of the genre. Just as Obvious Child find itself examining the conventions of the “twentysomething find their way” strain of the genre and last year’s Trainwreck pulls a gender flip on Apatovian man-child movies, Maggie’s Plan is all about the bougie, Greenwich Village intellectuals and professors of movies like Manhattan. With mathematicians turned artisan pickle crafter (dude got his wares picked up in Whole Foods!), private schools housed in swanky brownstones, and cups of coffee sipped from NPR mugs, it celebrates and pokes fun at the upper-class Manhattan lifestyle. Director and writer Rebecca Miller has genuine affection for the world these characters inhabit, and it comes across in the perfectly realized types Maggie encounters in her quest to live life on her own terms. Where Maggie’s Plan differs from its forebearers is in the respect and admiration for the women who inhabit this world. The women in Maggie’s Plan know what they want, and the film doesn’t punish them for wanting it. Maggie is ambitious and has clear ideas about where she want to be in her life, and the film never tries to teach her to do otherwise. If her desire to control a situation gets others in trouble (and it totally does), it also gets people out of it. Greta Gerwig plays the character with the quirk and intelligence that the female romantic leads in these types of movies usually have, but with loads more agency and sense of self.
Maggie’s romantic rival Georgette gets similarly all-too-rare depth. Georgette is an easy character to make into the villain. Hell, when we first meet her, railing against the state of modern protests on a university panel, she seems every bit the career-centric ice queen we expect her to be. And then we get to know her. Julianne Moore, in possibly the most Julianne Moore role of her life, makes Georgette pompous and blunt, but also likeable and warm. There are no lessons to be learned about being less career-oriented and more carefree; her strengths lie in traits different from Maggie’s, and the film celebrates them. The scenes in which the two women work together, taking care of three kids and working together to get where they want to be are some of the best in the movie for that very reason.
There’s been criticism that Ethan Hawke is an ill fit for the role of aspiring novelist, but for the story Maggie’s Plan is telling, it couldn’t be better. It’s the sort of casting that fits perfectly in line with Woody Allen’s tendency to cast more conventionally attractive men as Woody Allen surrogates in his films, be it Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled professor or Owen Wilson as a troubled screenwriter. To see scruff bearded and bespectacled Hawke slouch over a laptop, blasting “Dancing in the Dark” and explaining why working on his novel got in the way of picking up his daughter from daycare tells the viewer everything they need to know about this dude and his very specific and pervasive brand of man angst. Maggie’s Plan skewers this forlorn hero of so, so many stories written by sensitive white men in the gentle but pointed manner it does everything else. John might be a selfish jerk and a bit of a cad, but he’s not a bad person and not a straw man set ablaze. John is a character type long overdue for this kind of ribbing, but that doesn’t stop his humanity and the viewer’s empathy for him from shining through as he gets tangled in the plans of those around him.
Maggie’s Plan feels like a vital and welcome addition to the canon of new romcoms. Though the film meanders at times, it’s soft, satirical edge and warm heart keep it on track. Maggie’s Plan is the ideal comedy for anyone who’s ever chuckled at the intense, hipstery dude typing furiously away at a laptop in a trendy cafe, before turning back to their own laptop and chai latte.