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.