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.

film@seattleweekly.com

More in Film

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘2001’ in 2018

As Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece returns to theaters for its 50th anniversary, have moviegoers betrayed its legacy?

Through their partnership with Dandelion Africa, Extend the Day supplied solar lights to 9,000 children in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Extend the Day
‘Into the Light’ Cuts Through the Darkness

A documentary about local non-profit Extend the Day shows what it’s like for over 1.2 billion people throughout the world who lack electricity.

Evan Peters preps for a heist in American Animals. Image courtesy The Orchard
‘American Animals’ and How to Not Get Rich Quick

The heist film delivers on-screen thrills, and illustrates a potential future path for MoviePass.

Movies at Marymoor is just one of many local outdoor film offerings. Photo by Erinn J. Hale
Seattle Outdoor Movie Calendar 2018

Journey from Wakanda to a galaxy far, far away with this year’s summer film slate.

Get lost in the desert with ‘Little Tito and the Aliens.’ Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Final Week

From an isolated scientist to an always-connected teen, we highlight the fest’s offerings from June 4–10.

Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson star in SIFF’s Centerpiece film, <em>Sorry</em><em> to Bother </em><em>You</em>. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Week 2

A wide variety of comedies highlight the fest’s offerings from May 29–June 3.

Han-deled Well

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ plays it pretty safe, but still manages to be a fun space adventure.

The Primal Attraction of ‘Beast’

Arresting lead performances give this British psychological thriller an alluringly dangerous sexual energy.

I Am Not a Witch. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks Week 1

From a PBS star to a hip-hop firebrand, our choices for the must-see films screening at the fest from May 21–28.

Hearts Beat Loud. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Opening Weekend

From Chinese internet stars to a classic Japanese masterpiece, our choices for the must-see films screening at the fest from May 17–20.

Just a couple of normal buddies hanging out in Deadpool 2. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
Alive and Quippin’

Deadpool 2 might not be as sharp as the original, but the barrage of pop culture jokes keeps things fun.

The women that run SIFF: Beth Barrett and Sarah Wilke. Photo by Amy Kowalenko/SIFF
Women Filmmakers Make Big Moves at Seattle International Film Festival

As calls for accountability and inclusions roil Hollywood, SIFF’s power duo leads the nation’s largest film festival into a fairer future.