‘Maggie’s Plan’ (2016) | Sundance Review

Maggie’s Plan is in some ways the apotheosis of indie intellectual film. After all, it features Ethan Hawke as a ficto-critical anthropology professor finally writing that novel that’s been in his head, indie darling Greta Gerwig as a person who’s not as mature as she thinks she is, and a romantic triangle that only exists in movie New York academic life that inevitably ends in everyone working together. It should be the crown jewel of this kind of movie, standing alongside the previous works of its primary cast members like Frances Ha and the Before series. But Maggie’s Plan plays more like an unaware self-parody of this type of movie, cannibalizing all these tropes into an incoherent and unpleasant mess.

Gerwig is the titular Maggie, a student advisor who thinks her biological clock is ticking (even though it clearly isn’t). She intends to artificially inseminate herself with the help of a college friend named Guy (Travis Fimmel), a former math-whizz and current pickle salesman. However, she meets Hawke’s John (not to be confused with the great actor John Hawkes). She agrees to read his manuscript, and the two eventually fall for each other, despite him being married to another professor (Julianne Moore). Years later, they have a little girl and are married, but Maggie is no longer satisfied in their marriage and intends to get him back with his ex-wife.

First problem: I did not buy any of these relationships for a second. John is such a transparent panty-chasing scumbag from the first instant you meet him that it’s nearly impossible to picture anyone falling for him. So when thirty minutes into the movie Hawke and Gerwig proclaim their love for one another, you are rolling your eyes. And maybe we were meant to find that funny, but the scene is played for optimum emotional realness it’s hard to see what writer/director Rebecca Miller was going for. The relationship that ultimately works does not make sense to me either.

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Second problem: I did not like any of these people. Everyone in this movie only focuses on themselves to the point they don’t even invite empathy from the viewer. I didn’t care whether or not they made good or bad decisions because they wouldn’t give that thought to someone else. This does not have to do with the actors, who all do what their characters ask of them, but how they are written. Well, not every actor gets off the hook. Julianne Moore puts on a German accent that makes Madeline Kahn’s Lili von Shtupp sound realistic. There is zero reason as to why this person needs to be German, and every time she opened her mouth it was distracting.

The plot of Maggie’s Plan could make for a fun screwball comedy, but the characters need to be endearing to do that. We need a reason why we should connect with this extremely convoluted story. Miller gives us almost nothing to grab ahold of. You can have self-absorbed people be the center of your movie, but the film needs to be aware of it and occasionally cut them down to size. Making their quarrels earnest only turns me away from the film. They aren’t the comic narcissists they needed to be for the comedy and drama to work.

Gerwig, Hawke, and fellow cast members Bill Hader and Wallace Shawn are all very talented writers in their own rights, and it baffles me they would all gravitate towards this material. I certainly could not understand the appeal. Yeah, I had a few chuckles, but a few chuckles is not enough to engage me in a film. Maggie’s Plan manage to cobble together a bunch of pieces that could have made a great film and ended up doing nothing with them. In fact, it utilized them exactly the opposite way they should be.

GRADE: D-

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