Director Rebecca Miller's latest takes on subjects no less than destiny and the future of the American family, recognising that in dark times, the comedy genre can give a new angle on such serious enquiries. She does so with an excellent cast and some thoroughgoing rom-com subversion.
In a milieu of Brooklynite academics, Greta Gerwig's Maggie is a college lecturer who's decided to take matters into her own hands, and have a baby without all the unnecessary coupling. However, on the day her nice, diffident sperm donor delivers the goods, her burgeoning friendship with fellow teacher John turns into some unnecessary coupling of its own. So the thwarted control-freakery of Emma and the comically insular east-coast world of Hannah and Her Sisters may be brought to mind - but there are other texts within the film we're to heed.
John, the fantastically described 'bad boy of ficto-critical anthropology' (yes) has unintentionally wooed Maggie by sharing manuscripts of his ever-expanding novel with her. She loves its weird tone, a sort of 'surreal screwball' - and indeed, the tone of Maggie's Plan is unusual. There are more plot twists and turns, but they stop short of surrealism, and the tickertape-pace of screwball isn't quite attained. Though as we get to know its titular character, the film's slightly peculiar pacing shows itself to be mirroring her awkward pragmatism.
John, played halfway between a smoulder and a shambles by Ethan Hawke, gets involved due to unhappiness in his marriage to Georgette. In the latter role, Julianne Moore shines initially as a glacier-hearted solipsist - 'Who will not change a raven for a dove?' as a street performer recites - and A Midsummer Night's Dream crops up again later, underscoring how Titania-like schemes often end up Puckishly mangled. Georgette's later three-dimensionality is what partly throws another spanner in the works.
In fact, the more I think about Maggie's Plan, the more intricacy I see in its references and design. Miller's films re-purpose popular music in enjoyable ways, and here Springsteen's 'Dancing in the Dark' and breezy reggae end up serving a thematic function. Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph and a trio of wonderful child actors form a fine supporting cast, creating moments of originality which stay in the mind. Although tonally consistent, winning and smirkworthy, for me the laughs were few. This may have been affected by the atmosphere of my sparsely-attended early screening, but I'd hoped for more.
Gerwig has played the benevolent planner before, but here she brings her best characterisation since Frances Ha, and a more well-rounded personality. Maggie is as omni-likeable as Gerwig is eterna-watchable, who has graduated from the school of mumblecore but whose unshowy delivery still draws the attention in.
There's a limit to our control over circumstances, even for the intellectual - yet when Miller's in control, a light comedy world is formed in which no-one is a caricature and no stereotype is left unturned. Merits rewatching.