The principal cast of writer-director Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan suggests a parody of indie characters. First, there’s Maggie (Greta Gerwig), the fussy adviser to student artists who so thoroughly micromanages her life that she wants to have a baby via artificial insemination to avoid even the variables, uncertainty, and possible complications of the old-fashioned way. Her choice of sperm donor is Guy (Travis Fimmel), a former classmate and math whiz turned artisanal pickle impresario, whose very choice of occupation, to say nothing of his stunted social sense, immediately casts doubts on Maggie’s confidence in her decision-making. But while she’s in the final stages of planning her pregnancy, she meets and instantly falls for “ficto-critical anthropologist” and aspiring novelist John, a professor so stereotypically indie-hot that he’s played by Ethan Hawke.
The film’s first act builds to a manic climax, starting with Maggie’s misadventures relating to her pregnancy. Guy’s clumsiness with normal social engagement leaves him positively befuddled by the business transaction of his semen, leading to the kind of awkward entreaties that Maggie hoped to avoid in the first place. The farce of their trade culminates in something near to a gross-out gag, with Maggie using a home kit when a sudden knock at the door prompts her to crab walk across the apartment to keep Guy’s sample inside of her. But if Maggie’s Plan wryly pokes at the convoluted nature of its main character’s supposedly simple solution for having a child, it saves its sharpest critiques for the more traditional romance that blossoms between Maggie and John, one that ruins John’s marriage and curiously coincides with how fervently Maggie praises his manuscript.
The sudden leap forward in time from John’s confession of love to the new couple now married for a few years is the culminating punchline of the first act’s tangled narcissism, comically replacing the couple’s mutually flattering love with the banality and frustration of cohabitation. Gerwig specializes in playing characters whose fast-talking confidence can wallpaper over their profound sense of self-doubt, but typically one has to wait until the end of one of her films to see her characters so ragged and exposed as Maggie is in her constant state of ferrying her baby and stepchildren between activities.
John, meanwhile, always looks and sounds as if he just woke up from a refreshing nap, with hair lightly tossed and a voice groggy with sleep. Whenever Maggie begs him to help, he makes a half-hearted reference to the importance of his writing and retreats to his study or a pleasant meeting with his publisher. No longer driven by their respective quarter- and midlife crises, Maggie and John settle into stereotypical gender roles that their esoteric education and advanced intelligence was supposed to overcome, something that Maggie realizes and plots to correct.
It’s here that the film makes its boldest move, tossing out much of the first act as mere prologue and revealing that Maggie’s true plan concerns not her initial attempt to get pregnant, but rather her scheme to get John out of her life. Early in the film, Maggie praises John’s novel as “screwball surrealism,” and the former quality clearly influences the nature and tone of her idea to get John back with his ex-wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore). Moore plays Georgette with the same crypto-European accent that she gave Maude Lebowski in The Big Lebowski, and in many respects they’re the same character. Georgette is what Maggie can only imagine herself to be: so super-rational in everything that she does that she gives the impression that Maggie’s decision to involve her in this plot was Georgette’s plan all along.
As if to prove how much better Georgette is than Maggie, Moore herself definitively steals the film from Gerwig; with this shift, the film lurches violently away from the contemporary, indie comedy that the latter represents to an attempt to consolidate that setting into an old-school comedy of remarriage. Moore gives it her all while looking as if she’s giving it the bare minimum: Arranging to get stranded at a retreat with John, Georgette starts to win him back with transparently insincere flattery, praising his literary accomplishments and arguing that his life of luxury with Maggie is, somehow, just too hard on him and his talent. The film’s strongest passage, the retreat hammers home a vision of male love predicated less on looks or chemistry than who makes a man feel the most like a man.
Where the film falters is in its demotion of Maggie to a third wheel in her own story in the last two acts, neutering any criticism of her own shortcomings by rendering her unimportant. Yet by constantly returning to Maggie, the film mutes the energy built by Moore, whose Kate Hepburn routine never gets to shift out of first gear and become truly wild. This has the effect of muting what might have been a great neo-screwball in the vein of other recent offerings like Wild Canaries and The Color Wheel. As a writer and director, Miller is at her best when she finds the shared wavelengths of her lead cast’s divergent styles. Nonetheless, her sedate pacing renders that most manic of genres curiously inert, and for a film that regularly stops to showcase its three leads individually, no one gets to be truly memorable enough for Maggie’s Plan to be anything other than a mildly amusing diversion.