Rendering the rhapsodic Henry James novel of the same name into an abhorrent slice of tasteless familial drama, David Siegel and Scott McGehee's What Maisie Knew utilizes the youthful vigor and easy charm of the titular pre-adolescent (Onata Aprile) as a lens through which to view and reflect on the actions of the bitter, disappointed adults that dominate her affluent world. Her father, Beale (Steve Coogan), is a snooty art dealer with a wandering libido and taste for condescension; her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), is an aging rock goddess with a busy tour schedule and a serious thirst for attention. As depicted by the filmmakers, Maisie's parents are selfish and rich, but less forgivable is their mutual use of the girl as a tool to claim emotional territory on the eve of their divorce.
Of course, no one responsible for the film seems aware of the irony in their manipulative and witless use of Maisie to at once demonize the rich and artistically inclined, while desperately pandering to the supposed homegrown wisdom of the middle class, represented by Maisie's new stepparents. While Susanna is scatterbrained and narcissistic, Maisie's nanny-stepmom, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), is attentive, energetic, and funny, whereas Susanna's new bartender hubby, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), is goofy, laidback, and playful, a sharp contrast to Beale's ruthless pomposity. And when the new marriages begin to disintegrate, it's these stepparents that accord a more beneficial environment for young Maisie.
The script deals in reactionary emotions, and the directors do nothing to give even the slightest sense of character detail or nuance. It's a tactic they feel unburdens them of having to actually imagine how emotionally complex this common, volatile situation is for everyone involved. Beale and Susanna are less characters than embodiments of temperaments; they're simply privileged and artistic, self-involved and jealous. On the flipside, but in a similar fashion, Lincoln and Margo are modest and happy, giving and understanding. Ultimately, What Maisie Knew is all about intelligence vs. values, which the filmmakers repulsively suggest are mutually exclusive, here reconfigured to blindly diagnose prosperous and famous Americans as unfit for caregiving.
It's a chinchy, uncaring viewpoint of distinctly white, upper-class issues, familiar to those who dig through the skullduggery of tabloid journalism, but the filmmakers plead ignorant to the trashiness of their subject matter. The tone is that of elevated drama, tinged with limp comedy and executed with an indistinct, if competent, visual acumen. If the actions of the adults had simply served as a backdrop to Maisie's world of play dates and parks, with occasional glimpses inside the hallways of her elementary school, the snarky presumptiveness of the parents dynamic may have served a genuine narrative purpose, but Maisie is as much an apparition as her caregivers.
Beyond the facts (that she likes turtles, horses, and boats), Maisie is just an adorable cipher, a vessel of pure jubilant innocence and curiosity locked into a world of work schedules, depositions, curfews, court appearances, business trips, and tour dates. But the film omits any sense of the necessity of such busy, strict schedules, and thus essentially damns ambition as being in direct opposition to a healthy family life. Beale and Susanna are near-cartoonish in their cynicism and neglectfulness, and though the divorce is conveyed as the source of this behavior, there's never any sense that either of these people were ever anything but selfish and spoiled. In a wiser film, such overcooked stereotypes would have been utilized to subversive comic effect, but the self-seriousness of the film underlines both the laziness of the writing and the dull safety of the direction. And the film ends on a hot kernel of hypocrisy, as the privilege the film has casually demonized from scene one allows for a free beachside two-story home for Maisie to finally live a decent life of delusional humbleness.