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Arts & Life

The Only Certainty About 'Maggie's Plan' Is That Modern Romance Never Plays As Intended

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Jon Pack, Hall Monitor, Inc.
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Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Ethan Hawke as John and Greta Gerwig as Maggie in 'Maggie's Plan'

Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan is a comedy of manners, of sorts. What's obvious from the start is that the characters have no manners. They don't spit at each other or use the wrong fork at dinner; they have no essential manners. They have no framework for how to relate to one another, how to venture into another's personal space, or how to define themselves with respect to the society that contains them.

As soon as Greta Gerwig, as Maggie, walks into the movie, you might start thinking about the films of Noah Baumbach, but I think Rebecca Miller has a better handle than Baumbach on what it's like to be in your mid-30s without a clue to who you are in the world.

Maggie lives in Manhattan, in Greenwich Village. She passes by Washington Square; she teaches courses at The New School, although she's just an adjunct – she has no reliable position – she works in an ill-defined area connecting art and technology.

By chance, Maggie's Plan was filmed during a cold spell in New York. Piles of snow sit awkwardly around the city. The place feels cold – as it should for this movie about people who never get comfortable either in their world or in their own skin.

What constitutes Maggie's plan is unclear. She wants to have a baby, which frustrates her because she's never been in a relationship for more than six months. A village pickle maker, a former mathematician, is a willing donor, but he forgets to bring the promised container and has to improvise in her bathroom. Then she bumps into John (Ethan Hawke). The two spark; she's enthusiastic about the novel he's forever writing, and from one shot to the next, he's left his wife and two children. Before you know it, John and Maggie are married and they have a toddler.

Maggie also has other plans too. She's like one of Jane Austen's young women, tinkering with who should marry whom. But Austen's characters live within clear rules of social behavior; Maggie, John and John's astringent first wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) are lost. Maggie dresses like young college students in the East in the late 1950s – shoes with laces, wool skirts and jumpers, sweaters over blouses with collars. Greta Gerwig's soft face and body place her slightly out of her time. She's the very picture of indecision.

John and Georgette are both academics, working in a subspecialty cursed by impenetrable academic language known as ficto-critical anthropology. Who knows what's critical, what's fictitious – or what's real or true.

By intention, it's hard to tell where the folks are coming from – literally.

You don't know whether John and Maggie make dates or they just bump into each other. Their first embrace leads straight to Maggie, John and baby in family marital bliss – no courtship, no divorce for John, just an instantaneous change of status. It's all impulse, and the idea that Maggie has a plan is more a joke than a description.

These aren't unpleasant people; they're attractive; you feel for them. You laugh with them. The witchy former wife is sweet and caring, once you get through her façade. They're terribly sensitive in their way. At least they talk about pretty much everything, even if their talk is like a Mobius strip that gets them nowhere, and certainly gives no comfort. They just inhabit a world without structure, where people careen about, trying in vain to latch onto something stable. A student wants to combine skateboarding and architecture. Maggie in particular worries why love doesn't last. Sometimes she blames herself; sometimes she figures it's just the way of the world. Neither thought brings her peace.

Others think Maggie is just stupid. She's not angular like John or Georgette. Greta Gerwig is good at looking like she's somewhere else, but Maggie is not stupid. She articulates her loneliness more softly, that's all.

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