Thursday, June 9, 2016

More tales from New York City

Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan finds amusement in its characters' pretensions.
Watching writer/director Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan, I wondered whether something magical hadn'toccurred. Had Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach merged into an entirely new third person?

You all know Allen, and are familiar with his New York state of mind. The Baumbach connection requires only a little more explanation. Baumbach (Frances Ha and Mistress America) has worked with Greta Gerwig on several films, and Gerwig plays a pivotal role in Maggie's Plan, a New York-based movie in which the dialogue sometimes sounds as if it's standing on Allen's shoulders.

But Miller has her own view, one that sees characters as trapped by their pretensions and by relationships that are swamped by ego and need. As such, Maggie's Plan is a mostly pleasing seriocomic take on contemporary relationships.

Gerwig portrays Maggie, a young woman who has created one of those fuzzy, new-economy livelihoods: She tries to link artists with the commercial world.

Though single, Maggie wants a child. She arranges to acquire the seed of a sperm donor, a fellow named Guy (Travis Fimmel) who's carving out a career as a Brooklyn pickle maker. The Bavarian, he says, qualifies as one of his best.

Maggie's best pals (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph) are a cynical couple who already have a child and seem immune to the massive child-centeredness of so many new parents.

Of course, Maggie's path to motherhood can't be simple. Just before she begins negotiating the tricky procedure of self-impregnation, she meets John (Ethan Hawke), a "ficto-anthropology" professor who's working on a novel.

John has needs that aren't being satisfied by his wife (Julianne Moore), a Columbia professor with a major academic career. He also has two kids.

John asks Maggie to read the first chapter of his novel. She does. Because she seems to understand his authorial intentions, he falls for her. She falls for him, probably because she's buoyed by his reliance on her. She's needed.

Miller skips John's break-up, and moves ahead several years. Now married, John and Maggie have a daughter of their own, and Maggie often finds herself caring for John's kids from his previous marriage.

Nothing like marriage, kids and family entanglements to take the bloom off the romantic rose.

Maggie begins to see that she has turned herself into a capable (her word) helpmate who nurtures John's ego and tends to his domestic needs.

The rest of the plot should be discovered in a theater, but know that it's not the story that makes Maggie's Plan appealing. Rather, the actors and a collection of amusing small moments create a welcome sense that Maggie's Plan is as much a comedy of manners as a rom-com that revolves around another indeterminate Millennial woman.

Gerwig plays Maggie as an apparently guileless woman who might be the most unprovocative dresser (long skirts or dresses, sweaters and loafers) to appear in a movie for some time. Maggie looks like a woman who's doing a Diane Keaton impersonation, but can't get it right.

As an insecure academic with literary aspirations, Hawke is funny and credible. Hawke's John never seems to know where he's going, unless its on a journey into his own head.

But it falls to Moore to deliver a comic masterpiece of a performance as Georgette, a Danish woman with a bizarre European accent and a personality composed of acute angles. Massively stilted, Georgette probably sounds like she's giving a lecture even when she's brushing her teeth.

Miller explores what it's like to fall in and out love in what many aptly have described as a mash-up of stylistic contexts: from screwball comedy to personal drama.

Whatever it is, Maggie's Plan shows us something about the way the omelettes of contemporary lives are made -- by, as the saying goes, breaking lots of eggs.

In Miller's case, many of those eggs are cracked directly over the characters' heads.

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