“You once said if we were careful
That we could do this all our lives.
Although one of us got clumsy
And both of us got wise.
And now we’re not so young
Seems our wishing well’s gone dry.” –Dessa, Call Off Your Ghost
Maggie’s Plan opens with the titular Maggie (Greta Gerwig), a woman who very desperately wants to start a family even though she’s never had a relationship lasting longer than six months. Convinced that she’s never going to find Mr. Right, she makes arrangements for a no-strings-attached artificial insemination with some assistance from an old high school friend (Guy, played by… Travis Fimmel. Wow, between the big-budget spectaculars and the smaller indie rom-coms, it seems like there’s no limit to the genres Fimmel can suck at!).
But while all of this is going on, of course Maggie meets her perfect lover. That would be John (Ethan Hawke), a new adjunct professor at the school where Maggie works. They both teach absurdly complicated and esoteric studies in a cheeky parody of modern academia, you see. Perhaps more importantly, John is stuck in a loveless marriage with Georgette (Julianne Moore), a self-centered ice queen with a nearly incomprehensible accent. Oh, and she’s someone else who’s stuck in her own little obscure academic bubble with her head up her ass.
So John and Maggie start seeing each other. And eventually, the two fall in love, and John leaves his wife to settle down with Maggie and the child they have on the way. If you wanted a “happily ever after”, this is where you’d end the story. But no, life goes on and we cut to three years later.
Maggie’s career has gone steadily upward, leaving John to work on the novel he’s been writing for the past several years. But now Maggie has to manage the impossible task of balancing work with family, as she’s so busy working with her students and he’s so busy talking with publishers that neither of them can make time for three kids.
…Oh, did I forget to mention the two other kids? Well, in addition to the girl that Maggie and John have together (Lily, played by Ida Rohatyn), John also has two kids from his previous marriage (Justine and Paul, respectively played by Mina Sundwall and Jackson Frazer). So now they have to manage childcare while shuttling two kids back and forth between themselves and Georgette. Who, by the way, continues to find ways of dragging John into her melodramatic personal bullshit for hours at a time.
With all of this going on, the spark has gone from their marriage, and Maggie starts to question whether she’s falling out of love with John. Pretty much her only reason for staying with him is Lily, and lest we forget, there’s a chance that she isn’t even John’s biological daughter.
At this point, we’ve got a distinct element of “be careful what you wish for” going on here. Maggie got everything she wanted, but she’s such a control freak that she’s upset about the tiniest detail going wrong. More than that, she’s so paranoid about her previous inability to hold down a long-term relationship that failure may potentially become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Maggie went and entangled herself in a romance that came with two stepkids, a crazy ex-wife, a career, and a husband with a career of his own. This is what love, marriage, parenting, and adult life looks like today. It’s messy and it’s hectic, with good days and bad days and sleepless nights and shouting matches and rushed lovemaking.
Incidentally, all of this is further illustrated by Maggie’s two best friends, who are together in what could be called an “eccentric” marriage. The two of them are played by Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph, so of course the comic banter between them is an absolute riot.
Anyway, Maggie devises what may be the single worst idea in the history of love and romance (which is saying something, I know): She’s going to set John back up with Georgette.
Yes, Maggie is going to go behind her husband’s back to conspire with his ex-wife, manipulating circumstances so that he falls back in love with Georgette like Maggie is so convinced he wants to. This means that John will be tempted into marital infidelity and the ensuing soul-crushing guilt, completely unaware that this is exactly what his wife in her infinite wisdom had been planning all along. And then John and Georgette will assuredly get right back together like John’s three years of marriage to Maggie never happened. As for Lily… well, who knows what part she plays in all of this? Maggie sure doesn’t!
And you know what the dumbest part of all this is? Georgette actually agrees to go along with it. Not at first, but she does eventually.
It’s a tremendously stupid plan, but it is borne of Maggie’s good intentions mixed with her compulsively meddlesome nature. And it does indeed blow up in her face in spectacular fashion as part of her character growth, which helps. More importantly, this hopelessly idiotic plan helps to illustrate how two people in a relationship don’t always know if they’re just going through a rough patch or if they really are better off separating for good. It speaks to the messy and inconsistent nature of love, which is really what the film is all about.
Basically, the film is a romantic comedy that explores the rougher, darker, more unpredictable aspects of a committed relationship that are typically ignored or glossed over by most rom-coms. Yet the film maintains an intelligent sense of humor and a neurotic sort of wit, both of which serve to keep things light and remind us that this is in fact a romantic comedy.
Yet for how subversive the movie is with regards to romantic comedy tropes, it still falls prey to some recurring annoyances within the genre. When you get right down to it, these characters are still generic white people with generic white people problems who are somehow able to afford really nice homes in New York’s notoriously cutthroat real estate market. I somehow doubt that teachers (even published ones) make that much money in fields so obscure that I couldn’t even spell them. (Reminder: This is coming from a Bioinformatics undergraduate.)
Greta Gerwig and her style of talky indie romance may not be for everyone, but Maggie’s Plan is a charming little film for those who are open to it. The film is brutally honest with regards to the shortcomings of its characters, which not only helps to make them more sympathetic, but also makes the film funnier and far more incisive with its statements about modern romance. It’s a messy film about the messy nature of love and parenting, and there’s a certain kind of charm in that.
This is nothing so intelligent or revolutionary that I’d urge anyone to go out of their way for it. But if it happens to be playing nearby and you need a break from the typical loud and mindless summer blockbusters, I think you’ll find this to be a nice laid-back alternative.