Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Maggie's Plan

  The Best-Laid Plans … in This Case Involve Getting Laid (sort of)

                                                              Review by Ken Burke

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                       Maggie’s Plan (Rebecca Miller)
NYC’s Maggie’s not getting any younger, wants a baby, arranges for sperm donation from a friend, then falls in love with married John which leads a few years later to a new marriage, a new child, and the old problem that Maggie’s always been afraid of: the relationship’s not working; all of this becomes very reminiscent of Woody Allen's films without being a ripoff.
What Happens: Maggie Hardin (Greta Gerwig) is a NYC woman approaching the limits of what society normally considers “young,” feels that she’s not the sort of person who functions beyond 6 months in a relationship, yet she wants a baby so she arranges for a sperm donation from a friend, Guy Childers (Travis Fimmel)—not just any old “guy” she notes, slyly-indicative of the humor in this script (along with a subtle foreshadowing)—who thinks math is beautiful but doesn’t want to muck up that fascination by becoming a mathematician (maybe he saw the problems that bedeviled Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity [Matthew Brown; review in our June 16, 2016 posting]) so instead he’s becoming a craft-pickle-entrepreneur in hopes of selling his product through a chain like Whole Foods.  The big day will wait until the upcoming March 23rd, though, because planner-par-excellence-Maggie wants to save up enough money to deal with the added expenses of a baby (early spring won’t be that far away, though, because we’re already in snowy-winter-streets-scenes), an idea that gets constant criticism from her married friend, Tony (Bill Hader)—with a little wise-ass-kid of his own (but he keeps frozen sperm, for good measure).  Next we learn that she’s the director of business development and job/investment-opportunities for the arts students of the college she works at (Washington Square locations might imply NYU, but I got the impression it’s more like a community college) where one day in the Payroll Office she has a chance meeting with John Harding (Ethan Hawke), an Adjunct Professor (my former colleagues of that designation at Mills College, Oakland CA prefer Non-Tenure-Track Faculty as being less pejoratively-connotational) in the area of Ficto-Critical Anthropology (which, despite it’s wacky sound, is a real thing that involves blending fiction, philosophy, and more traditional academic scholarship; director Miller explains more about it here).
 John begins noticing her around campus, strikes up conversations, asks for her opinion on the novel he’s trying to write.  (You might think that he’d turn to his wife, scholar Georgette Nørgaard [Julianne Moore], a tenured-Anthro-prof. at Columbia U., but all it takes to see why not is a scene of them interrupting each other in a 2-person-“panel”-discussion, followed by another of their home-dinner-conversation [recounted briefly in that link above] to show both how academically-obtuse/ emotionally-frozen this pair is, as well as the borderline-contempt she has for her husband which helps John justify his quickly-growing-romantic-interest in sweet, generous Maggie; however, she thinks his book’s delightfully-bizarre, not realizing that it’s based on his increasingly-detestable-life.)
 By the time sperm-day arrives (Guy offers to “donate” in the more traditional manner, which she rejects in favor of a little jar-full to use at her own discretion), we know that Maggie accumulates men in serial relationships but ends up only with their former belongings (her small apartment’s still stacked with books from the last one, with no further information about who he was); that she comes from an academic background herself (her parents were faculty at the U. of Wisconsin but after divorce she was raised by her mother in Madison until Mom died when Maggie was 16, then she moved to Philadelphia to be with “cordial, quiet” Dad, a life somewhat like the Quaker meetings she attended with her mother); and that John’s passionate about her (revealed in a crazy scene where she’s trying to keep the now-injected-sperm in her body as she clumsily scoots across her apartment to answer the intercom, drops the load when she stands up as she learns it’s John at her door, lets him in under the premise that he’s accidently locked out [while Georgette and their kids—Justine {Mina Sundwall} and Paul {Jackson Frazer}—are out of town], then is flabbergasted when he tells her that he’s ready to leave his marriage for her).  After a fadeout/jump-cut to 3 years later (which at first I considered to be a possible-fantasy on Maggie’s part, having already been primed by the ongoing comic situations of this film to expect just about anything), we find Maggie with adorable-toddler Lily (Ida Rohatyn), married to John, sharing joint custody of the other kids (along with some smarmy-attitude from borderline-teen Justine), John’s novel still in process, and Georgette making a name for herself with her book, Bring Back the Geisha, a thinly-veiled diatribe about Maggie and the ensuing divorce.  However, tension’s growing between Maggie and John because he spends a lot of phone time attending to Georgette’s problems (forcing Maggie to cancel important plans one day in order to do child-chauffeuring in lieu of his meeting with a potential publisher but when that gets cancelled he spends hours in phone-dialogue with his ex, dealing with yet-another-supposed-crisis of hers).

 Eventually, Maggie seeks out Georgette at a book signing, admits that she likes her despite her harsh, haughty European attitude, and eventually meets with her to reveal that the marriage isn’t working out so well so she’s willing to help find a strategy (one of her plans in this story) to get the exes back together; after initial dismissal of the idea, Georgette warms to it, then plots to get John invited to a conference in Quebec (where Georgette will just happen to show up), and intends to put the moves on him until on the spot when she gets cold feet (not hard to do, given that we’re once again in a wintertime setting, just more frigidly-further-north) in honor of his new marriage (even though she knows that Maggie’s ready to opt out, simply keeping her beloved Lily).  However, snowstorm conditions force the conference attendees to travel out on foot, Georgette and John get lost together, finally find their way to an inn with the rest of the crowd (all singing along to Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark’), reconnect with firm intentions of remarriage, but when he comes home with her there’s now resistance from Justine toward this coupling (even though he’s admitted his infidelity to Maggie, who puts on an act of telling him to just go) so he’s now wandering the streets, trying to find somewhere to crash, ends up with Tony and wife, Felicia (Maya Rudolph)—securely married but constantly bickering—where Tony drunkenly spills the beans about the Quebec plan.  John leaves both women in a huff but ultimately meets with Georgette where she gives him the bag of ashes of his now-destroyed-novel (only to have him admit he’s no novelist anyway) but then tells of her admiration for his ability to “unpack commodity compression” (gets big laughs from the audience but if you’ve been in academia as long as I have you’ll know that such phrases are just how a lot of those folks talk) as they reconcile once again.

 We then go forward a little further (still wintertime, of course) as Maggie and now-ex John help Lily with ice-skating (Georgette’s there, too, moving slowly along the railing, just like my one attempt decades ago, except when I tried to move a little bit more onto the ice only to lose my balance, grab the rail, and flip completely over it—I couldn’t have choreographed that better if I’d tried).  Someone mentions Lily’s fascination with numbers which Maggie says doesn’t come from her or John, as we realize that her sperm insertion from Guy did work after all, with the closing shot of him smiling, walking toward the ice rink (we know from an earlier scene that he did get the Whole Foods contract and his Bavarian pickles are still delicious) so we assume that Maggie’ll finally successfully be able to couple-up (although she'll have to somehow explain to Lily about the father-confusion).

So What? You might think that if plan-happy-Maggie wanted a child so badly that she’d choose to adopt so she would potentially have even more information about her future situation with a life-addition, but after seeing the complications—and expense—that one of our unmarried New England nieces had to deal with in bringing her marvelous baby daughter into her life (just a little over a year ago, with sweet little Leona now on the verge of speech and mobility, based on the Facebook videos we get regularly), I can clearly understand why do-it-on-her-own-terms-Maggie was determined to simply get pregnant, the almost-old-fashioned-way (which not only allowed us to witness the humor of her crab-walk-attempt to answer her intercom just after the sperm insertion but also keeps us in the dark as to the actual fatherhood of Lily until just before final fadeout).  You might also think that Maggie’d be able to find someone more appropriate as a husband than John (who not only doesn’t seem to know what to do with his professional life, spending years on a novel that he really has no ability to complete [his manuscript is reaching Thomas Wolfe-proportions; see my review of Genius {Michael Grandage} in our June 16, 2016 posting for more insight on that comment if you wish] nor desire to write it except to show Maggie that her initial interest in him wasn’t wasted but also comes whining back to Georgette years later in the same “rescue me from this broken marriage” plea that he used when he threw himself at Maggie), but she’s a trusting soul who wants to follow the Quaker admonition to do as much good as possible for everyone, even at her own expense until such time as she gets fed up with being the self-chosen-servant to everyone else’s needs. Of course, both Maggie and John seem to be on trajectories to distance themselves from their primary parent’s occupations—hers was a 19th-century-British-poetry-professor, his was an Atlantic City blackjack dealer—but their needs briefly-cross more so than find parallel paths.

 How they all do what they do in this film, though—especially Gerwig as Maggie, but with her supporting cast on the mark in all of their characterizations, from the complex, ego-driven, main-complication-for-everyone-else in Hawke’s portrayal of John to the minor-but-memorable-role of Tony and Felicia’s son, Max (Monte Green), a young boy who’s a star soccer player but insists on being wheeled around in a baby carriage so he can feed his voracious appetite for reading—is very commendable as a fine display of ensemble-acting.  However, despite Miller’s generally-well-crafted-script (based on an idea in an unfinished-novel by good friend Karen Rinaldi), with a lot of marvelous dialogue (but nothing truly unexpected, even the snippy remarks of the kids—these are NYC-upper-ish-class-children, after all), fast-moving (yet completely transparent) plot situations, and audience-friendly-intentions (Miller: “I think the older I get, the more life I see, the more I feel the need for comedy […] I think comedy is deeply necessary, and being able to laugh at yourself, and to look at the world around you with humor, is a forgiving way of living.  As I mature as a person and as an artist, I see how deep comedy can be.  I gave in to my desire to make people happy with a film.”)
I do think that formula intrudes a bit too heavily in the closing scenes, with both Georgette and Maggie easily-promising to temper their worst tendencies (Does John offer any such resolves off-screen?), the extended/somewhat-blended-families smoothly integrated, and the sudden-but-perfect-appearance of Guy in the closing seconds hold me back from going to a higher rating than 3½ stars, but remember that’s still solid praise, given that 4 is usually my top (saving the higher numbers for something that I think will truly resonate over time).  That decision puts me a bit lower than the critical consensus for a change (Rotten Tomatoes 84% positive reviews, Metacritic 76%; more details in the links farther below), but I still recommend a viewing of Maggie’s Plan if it’s available in your area (down to 203 theaters, box-office at about $2.3 million, so it’s fading fast).

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: It took me awhile to get to Maggie’s Plan (it’d been out for 5 weeks; other options just kept coming up), but upon encouragement from regular commentator/ contributor Richard Parker in San Antonio, TX I finally saw it, very glad that I did.  (As I noted just above, though, if you’re interested you’d better look quickly because I don’t know how much longer it can survive the planned-big-screen-dominance of such fare as the just-released-sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence [Roland Emmerich]—although, despite its huge budget, apparently it’s so bad that the studio didn’t even allow advance showings—and the upcoming-remake of the female-led-Ghostbusters [Paul Feig, release date July 15, 2016], so Maggie might have to wait for a video option for you.)  It’s been frequently-compared to Woody Allen’s work, which is reasonable considering the Manhattan locations, the quirky characters, the incessantly-witty situations and dialogue, the somewhat-jazzy-soundtrack (in places, but I can’t imagine Springsteen ever making his way into one of Woody’s features), and the sappy-happy-ending that's become much more the case in recent Allen work (such as Magic in the Moonlight [2014; review in our July 25, 2014 posting])—although at times he’s back to the bittersweet, if not outright bitter, finales of some of his earlier hits, especially with the melancholy tale of Blue Jasmine (2013; review in our August 16, 2013 posting).  But, for me, it’s more appealingly-Allen-esque rather than being a blatant ripoff, which is my opinion of what we get in When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, 1989) a very funny movie but so clearly borrowed from various aspects of the usual Master of Manhattan as to make me wonder why screenwriter Nora Ephron didn’t get sued for plagiarism.

 However, lawsuits are a tactic that don’t work too often in the arts, as evidenced by the recent court decision that cleared Led Zeppelin of stealing the opening-guitar-hook for their enormously-popular tune, “Stairway to Heaven.”  (On the 1971 Led Zeppelin IV album, but I’m not going to link it up for you because it’s just too far afield from the content and attitudes of Maggie’s Plan—which means I’m also passing on my burning-temptation to cue up Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” [on the 1965 Bringing It All Back Home album] but again it’s really got nothing to do with the situations or characters of the film under our current consideration—although I guess I could make a comparison to Georgette about how “she talks to all the servants About man and God and law Everybody says She’s the brains behind pa [John] She’s sixty-eight, but she says she twenty-four …"  Well, OK, I guess that’s close enough after all, so take a listen if you like from the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Bobby angered many in the crowd by going electric.)  After that side-trip, though, let’s get back to the current Maggie.  As a preparation for explaining my stars rating below, though, I’ll note that whether you’d likely-like Maggie’s Plan or not could hinge on how you feel about its situations and the responses to them by the characters so here’s a possible litmus test: One of my viewing companions noted that his response to the film was limited because he didn’t have much sympathy for anyone on screen, which I think you could relate to another NYC-based-storyline, TV’s Seinfeld where you probably either found satisfying humor in those self-centered-perspectives (me) or you thought they belonged in “Good Samaritan” jail for their myopic views of life, as was their fate in the series finale (Hey, you’ve been warned about my Spoilers, but this show concluded in 1998 so where have you been since the 21st century started ?); how you’d relate to the Maggie … people might also fall along that same spectrum of curious-fascination to uninterested-dismissal.*

* If you were/are (via reruns) a Seinfeld fan, you might be interested in Jerry’s own take on the series (in a video that may make you dizzy with the camera moving around so much) in which he explains his favorite episode and the intentional-Italian-Jewish-confusion about the Costanza family.  Here's a compressed version (7:20) of the key points of that famous "Marine Biologist" episode.

 One question for me with Maggie’s Plan is whether it really is too often like a Woody Allen exposé of NYC's overeducated, amorphously-amoral-urbanites who never can seem to understand what they want or how to achieve their dreams even if they can manage to focus on some specific outcomes.  (At least our Maggie has strategies, as she’s always trying to fix everyone’s life, including hers, until she finally swears off being so outcome-invested by the end of this story just as fierce Georgette swears off being so aloof and career-oriented [although with the success of her book and awarding of the chairship of her Columbia U. department you could surely say that she’s achieved enough already anyway].)  If you want the true classic of this sort of thing, which even Allen himself continued to mine in many more films until he finally broke away from New York to give himself some new challenges in Europe in recent years, you can’t do better than Manhattan (Allen, 1979), but that doesn’t mean that Miller can’t find a way to approach similar material without it seeming like a blatant copy (such as John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo [2014; review in our May 8, 2014 posting], a overly-Allen-inspired-situation, ironically with Woody as one of the primary actors), but that’s always a difficult task in any art form, trying to find a way to carry forward what someone else once did successfully without just aping form and/or content.  (Some achievements, such as with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings or John Cage’s 4’33” [the supposed-“silent piano”-piece where the sound is actually nervous noises from the audience awaiting the pianist’s keystrokes], are just too unique to do more than incorporate a few aspects into new work, but if a style—Impressionism—or an attitude—sophisticated, neurotic, urban-influenced humor—can’t be allowed to find ongoing, fresh expression then we’ll be sadly-consigned to simply revisiting the catalogues of the various “old masters” when we no longer have Monet or Allen around to produce something new for us.)

 Personally, I’m glad to see that Miller, or anyone else who can write dialogue at this level, is still interested in putting a new twist on an already-established-cinema-form because I then get to appreciate a film that more-or-less reminds me of Allen’s best work without activating my private concerns about negotiating whether I’m hesitant to see Café Society (Allen’s newest, set to compete on its opening day with the new Ghostbusters) because of those revived pedophilia allegations against him or even the lesser-concern-fear that it'll be one of his floundering minor works.  Still, the easy resolutions and happy sentimentality as everything comes together neatly at the end of Maggie's Plan hold it back a bit for me, even as I easily admit that I generally enjoyed it throughout most of its exposition, so after a lot of internal consideration I stayed at the not-quite-there-level of 3½ stars, even with the realization that in a couple of years I might decide I was being too stingy.  As for a choice of my usual review-concluding-Musical Metaphor to extend—if not complete—the stylistic mood of Maggie’s Plan, one immediate option is the aforementioned Springsteen hit (actually, his biggest single to date), “Dancing in the Dark” (from the acclaimed 1984 album, Born in the U.S.A., with this song winning the 1985 Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance) at https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=129kuDCQtHs the official music video (with a brief appearance by pre-TV-Friends-star Courtney Cox [for those who preferred that younger-demographic-oriented-show to Seinfeld]) in that these lyrics relate well to John, especially the references to being “just tired and bored with myself [...] sitting ‘round here trying to write this book” when what he needs is “a love reaction” because “there’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me,” which convinces me that Miller had all of this in mind when she chose to include this song in her film, just as I’ve chosen to include it here.

 However, this hard-driving Springsteen song doesn’t really include Maggie very well, so in further thinking about her I kept coming back to Sheryl Crow’s bouncy “All I Wanna Do” (from the 1994 Tuesday Night Music Club album, this song also her biggest hit as well as winning her a pair of 1985 Grammys, for Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance) at https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=O6iN9pi YuO4, as I impose my imagination on Maggie, hoping that instead of just settling for those pleasant-but-wintertime-ice-encrusted-stereotypically-happy-endings in Manhattan she might one day shake off a bit of her proper upbringing, head west for the warmth of the summer—for awhile at least, maybe “until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard”—where she can enjoy “a good beer buzz early in the morning […] In a bar that faces a giant car wash” because “All [she wants to] do is have some fun [as she’s] got a feeling [she's] not the only one.”  Hey, Maggie, just get mesmerized by watching “the bottles of Bud as they spin on the floor,” then you can head back East when you're ready, just in time for another snowstorm and some Bavarian pickles, maybe another bubble-bath with your precious daughter before she gets old enough for such pleasures to inadvertently get you into another (charged but not substantiated, undesirable nevertheless) realm of Woody Allen territory.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about Maggie’s Plan:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbJ49IUyCcA (admittedly, this trailer practically gives you the whole plot in roughly 2½ minutes, but maybe that’s all you need to know about it)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAmZQzqFHwg (12:15 interview with director Rebecca Miller, actors Greta Gerwig and Travis Fimmel)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at kenburke409@gmail.com.  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. I thought Julianne Moore did an admirable job of comic acting in this film, something you rarely see her attempt.

    The movie industry needs a new rating system for adult content, not for racy material, but for intelligent "grown-up" films like Maggie's Plan.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks as always for your comments. I agree that Moore was excellent in her role and that some ratings indication for well-thought-out adult films would be useful so that those of us who'd prefer sophisticated entertainment to superhero city-bashing, alien invaders, gruesome horror films, and inanities such as Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising would have better clues as to what's available. In such a system, though, one can only hope that whoever would assign such ratings would have the tasteful insights that you and I obviously share.

    Thanks again for steering me to Maggie's Plan, which might have slipped by otherwise; well-invested time and money, even if I did find reasons to nitpick it down from 4 stars (time will tell if that was the right choice or not). Ken