Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

The Screwy Screwball of Maggie’s Plan

The comedy in Maggie’s Plan is on-again, off-again.

It’s possible that the author of Death of a Salesman might have fathered a child with a gift for the rapid-fire style of screwball comedy. But in her films as writer/director, Arthur Miller’s daughter has remained true to his somber mood. Rebecca Miller seems entirely at home in the heaviness of her 2005 drama The Ballad of Jack and Rose (which starred her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, no laugh riot himself). And when hilarity breaks out in Miller’s Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009), it’s like a desperate bark from someone drowning.

Miller’s new film, Maggie’s Plan, has the contours—and the far-fetched storyline—of a screwball comedy, and although it misses the happy rhythm of that ditzy film subgenre, it substitutes something intriguing. Watching the first 20 minutes is like sitting through one of Woody Allen’s recent misfires: We recognize the New York setting, register that characters are saying “funny lines,” but wait for the general slackness to slap itself into some kind of shape. Maggie (Greta Gerwig), an administrator at the New School, is eager to have a baby, though she is single. Her romance with a self-centered “ficto-critical anthropologist,” John (Ethan Hawke), leads to the collapse of his marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore), a needy Danish academic.

The screwball mechanism asserts itself when Maggie realizes she may have made a mistake; marrying John becomes bringing up baby, but not the kind she had in mind. What if she could engineer a way to get John back with Georgette? The more the movie goes on, the more it is revealed that Maggie is less a kooky innocent than a control freak who needs to have everything come out with everybody happy. That’s when Maggie’s Plan gets more interesting.

If the snappy repartee doesn’t click into gear, Miller does have a great eye for turning points and quiet madness. When John first visits Maggie’s apartment, he circles her living room, eyeing the hundreds of books stacked against the walls. Hawke sells the moment beautifully; he’s like a man inhaling an aphrodisiac. You can almost see John imagining Maggie as his literary dream girl, the sexy (but organized and capable) muse who could inspire him to finish his novel. He doesn’t hear her, probably, when she says that the books actually belong to the poet from whom she’s subletting the place.

Later, after the marital breakup, there’s a gloriously awkward scene in which Maggie slinks into a bookstore while Georgette gives a reading; the book includes angry material about the homewrecker. When Maggie and pal Felicia (Maya Rudolph) decide they want to buy a copy and get it signed, they worry over the protocol of such an admittedly unusual gesture—a New Yorker cartoon come to life.

So the movie does have humor, even if it lacks a snappy pace. And in certain moments it soars: When John and Georgette share a drink at an academic conference in Quebec, the band breaks into a French-Canadian-inflected romp on Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” and everybody gets up and dances because even academics aren’t immune to joy.

Miller deserves credit for casting actors who know how to make things bearable even when the one-liners aren’t working. Gerwig’s trademark assertive sincerity could use a shake-up, but she is good at this kind of thing; you could almost imagine Miller writing the scene with Georgette serving Maggie buttered coffee just to see what facial expression Gerwig will make (she doesn’t disappoint). SNL alumni Rudolph and Bill Hader are believably rough-edged as Maggie’s friends; Warcraft star Travis Fimmel does nicely as a shy “pickle entrepreneur”; and Moore seems to be playing a cousin to her Big Lebowski character (“I detest fakery,” she says, pronouncing the “r” like a “w”). I tend to knock a lot of contemporary comedies because they favor psychological realism over comic brio (in too many movies, the laughs must stop for revelations about childhood bullying or body-shaming, allegedly to make us understand and root for the characters), and I suppose Maggie’s Plan is guilty of that. But in the end, Miller’s flimsy grasp of how to nail a punch line seems less important than her ability to create situations that allow a truthful absurdity to flourish.

More in Film

Tim Blake Nelson plays the titular Buster Scruggs. Photo courtesy Netflix
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Is a Wagon Train of Dark Mischief

The Coen brothers’ new anthology seves as a glorious ode to Westerns’ dusty death.

Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo star in ‘Widows.’ Photo by Merrick Morton
Crime Doesn’t Pay Off in ‘Widows’

Steve McQueen’s feminist heist thriller stretches itself far too thin.

At times, the actors in Outlaw King are hard to tell apart under the mud, furs, 
and filthy mullets. Courtesy Netflix
Coming for the Throne

‘Outlaw King,’ the Chris Pine-led 14th century epic about the First War of Scottish Independence, signals Netflix’s attempt to conquer the Oscars.

Big-screen Queen via Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
Not Quite A Killer Queen

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ hits some musical high notes, but the Queen biopic largely plays it too safe.

Screaming and Streaming

A selection of the best horror movies you can stream at home this Halloween.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) returns to once again square off with Michael Myers in the new ‘Halloween.’ Photo by Ryan Green/Universal Studios
Still Killin’ It

Michael Myers has been coming home for decades now, ever since he… Continue reading

Trailer Park Blues

Megan Griffiths’s Sadie taps into the dark side of teenage angst through Sophia Mitri Schloss’s strong lead performance.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are beacons of light in <em>Rafiki</em>. Image courtesy Film Movement
Getting It Twisted

What to watch for at this year’s edition of Twist: A Queer Film Festival.

Ryan Gosling blasts off as Neil Armstrong in First Man. Photo by Daniel McFadden
Sea of Tranquility

In Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man,’ Ryan Gosling delivers a fascinating blank slate portrayal of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as star-crossed lovers. Photo by Neal Preston
Not the Brightest Star in the Sky

Lady Gaga shines in the otherwise underwhelming ‘A Star Is Born.’

First-time actor Ben Dickey (with guitar) stars as the titular country songwriter Blaze Foley. Courtesy IFC Films
Down in a ‘Blaze’ of Glory

Writer/director Ethan Hawke aptly portrays Blaze Foley’s never-made-it musical legend.

Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, and Jack Black get their kiddie horror on in The House 
With a Clock in Its Walls. Photo courtesy Storyteller Distribution Co.
Tick, Tick… Boo!

Jack Black and Cate Blanchett can’t prevent the spooky kids’ movie The House with a Clock in Its Walls from feeling a bit insincere.