Greta Gerwig started her career in microbudget comedies ranging from “Hannah Takes the Stairs” to “Yeast,” where she excelled at portraying the naiveté and confusion of early adulthood. However, in the past five years since Gerwig has taken on roles in bigger projects, there has been a greater clarity to her screen presence: She’s a rambunctious, fun-loving ball of energy at once frustrated with her limited options and giddy about taking new steps. Her talky style defines the distinctive qualities of “Frances Ha,” “Mistress America,” and even less original character studies such as “Lola Versus.”
While not exactly typecast, Gerwig leaves a particular mark on her material with an auteur-like command over every roles. No matter what, she runs the show, and the movies complement that ability. Writer-director Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan” looks and sounds like several Gerwig movies rolled into one, which is much to its credit, and makes it official: Gerwig officially owns her own genre, the screwball New York comedy about the wayward adventures of a sprightly young woman.
Here, the Gerwig escapades begin with the title, a clever form of misdirection. In the opening minutes, Miller reveals Maggie dashing through the Manhattan streets to meet up with her old college pal Tony (Bill Hader), and explain her intentions of being artificially inseminated. But that agenda shifts over the next 90 minutes, when Maggie initially falls for neurotic lecturer and aspiring novelist John (Ethan Hawke), then changes her tune after they develop an affair by trying to come up with a plan to save his marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore, sporting a goofy Danish accent). The running joke of “Maggie’s Plan” is that, for most of the movie, she doesn’t really have one.
Miller guides the material along with a light touch, but shows a penchant for the bubbly dialogue of overeducated New York sophisticates that even Woody Allen can’t do these days. A university professor in the hilariously-named field of “ficto-critical anthropology,” John is seen as “one of the bad boys” of his field but remains creatively unsatisfied. He connects with Maggie, a graduate school advisor, in the hallway and eventually seeks her advice on his novel.
As she starts to provide feedback, an obvious romantic bond develops out of John’s recurring frustrations with his high-achieving wife, another superstar of the ficto-critical anthropology field (we first see them together on a panel moderated by Wallace Shawn in a brief cameo, which solidifies the classic New York movie credentials of “Maggie’s Plan” early on). John’s novel, a thinly veiled portrait of his troubled marriage, provides a feeble escape from the reality of his life.
In the meantime, Maggie continues her amusingly ill-conceived intentions of being a single mom. She meets up with her potential donor, a monotonous, bearded hipster named Guy (Travis Fimmel, a deadpan discovery) who makes a living as a pickler. “How much involvement do you want to have?” Maggie asks him, quickly following up with, “I was going to suggest, ‘None.'” Guy makes a sweetly awkward proposition that they conceive a child “the old-fashioned way,” but Maggie has her eyes on a different prize: John, whose mutual feelings for Maggie come from a fragile place bound to further complicate both of their situations.
As the situational humor piles up, Miller’s script combines its sunny attitude with recurring ironic asides (“We were miserable, but also happy,” Maggie says of a former relationship). The jittery wit and sophisticated reference points (John geeking out about seeing media theorist Slavoj Zizek at an upcoming conference) might seem thin if Miller didn’t ground them in an maze-like plot that falls squarely into the classic paradigm of the remarriage comedy. When John’s wife concocts a daring plan to win him back at an academic retreat, the scenario wouldn’t seem out of place in a Preston Sturges picture.
But “Maggie’s Plan” never reaches for that same depth, and much of its world has the underdeveloped quality of Maggie’s worldview (the roles of Hader’s character and his wife, played by Maya Rudolph, feel more like the goofy reunion of two first-rate “Saturday Night Live” performers than a fully realized relationship). Moore, with her laser-sharp gaze and accompanying self-confidence, displays a fantastic penchant for comedic timing. Her accent, however, never truly settles in. “Maggie’s Plan” has a similar air about it: Not entirely convincing, it nevertheless maintains an inviting tone of constant amusement — a rickety balancing act that applies even more to Gerwig’s performance.
“There’s something so pure about you…and a little bit stupid,” Georgette says to Maggie, which is something of a misnomer. Her intelligence manifests in rapid bursts of quirky observations and desires, with a streak of self-deprecation that hides her genuine talent. Miller applies Gerwig to the center of a busy story with simple themes, but it glides along so effortlessly that its reductive qualities barely register. The filmmaker’s exceedingly smart screenplay is the real plan, and Gerwig’s performance puts it into action.
“Maggie’s Plan” premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.