Maggie’s Plan, the latest film from writer-director Rebecca Miller (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) tells the story of Maggie (Greta Gerwig), a bumbling academic who falls in love with a “panty-melting” aspiring novelist called John (Ethan Hawke). This, as the film reminds us, is a shame because John is married. Also, by the time Maggie and John decide to consummate their love, Maggie has just inseminated herself with the sperm of her other suitor, Guy (Travis Fimmel) – an entrepreneurial dreamboat who is both good at maths and polite (he buys Maggie flowers and diligently cleans the jar of his sperm before handing it over to Maggie).
In order to be with Maggie, John leaves his accomplished wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore). Like Maggie and John, Georgette is also an academic. Unlike them, she is so intimidatingly accomplished that she texts throughout dinner and sporadically announces, “I’ve just been offered Chair of the Department at Columbia!” She declares this in what is supposed to be a Danish accent, but is, in reality, the accent of a person with a lisp who lived in France, then moved to Germany. John is sick of Georgette bossing him around and not helping him raise their children (he thinks of Georgette as a rose and himself as a terrible gardener). By contrast, Maggie is a breath of fresh air. She waits on John, encourages him to write his novel and looks after all three of his children (two of whom are Georgette’s and who repeatedly call Maggie stupid in Danish). John spends his marriage to Maggie loafing about, pretending that Maggie does not have a job and yabbering away on the phone to Georgette several times a day (something that Guy would never do).
Maggie’s Plan is an unconvincingly self-aware satire of Woody Allen’s earlier romantic comedies. While Allen’s characters are somewhat insolently cerebral, Miller’s are pseudo-intellectual at best – they are academic by job description alone. John’s theory on language is pithily summarised by his contention that the word “like” is a “language condom”, and watching Georgette’s flirting (“No one unpacks commodity fetishism like you do”) is as sexless and inconvenient as watching a designer tap drip. And yet, it is as if Maggie’s Plan was written for Greta Gerwig alone. She is the only actor with the unique ability to look, one minute, like an oversized child, galumphing about, and the next, like a radiant goddess. Watching her, one cannot help but alternate between wondering if she is too immature to have a child and then wishing that she were one’s own mother.
My immediate response to Miller’s film was to resent its betrayal of the feminist cause it promises to champion. For me, its opening premise of Maggie wanting to have a child with a sperm donor promised a new sort of film – an indie comedy where the protagonist’s quirkiness reaches beyond aesthetics and awkwardness. When we meet Maggie, there is hope that her penchant for tartan and wool and her awkward dancing on her own might function as signifiers of her being an outsider, a maverick who refuses to play by the rules of society and who daringly decides to raise a child on her own. Such promise, I think, makes the film’s reality so much less sweet. Maggie is no renegade. She is the lost hipster who functions as the doormat for a narcissistic man who is in love with his ex-wife. In this sense, Maggie’s Plan is a feminist tragedy.
Upon later reflection, I found my resentment abated by a sense of grief. As ridiculous as the film’s characters are (John and Georgette, in particular, are caricatures at best), there is something about Maggie’s plight that resonates with the experience of the modern woman. In the end, it is Gerwig’s transcendent genuineness that saves the film from deteriorating into a derivative farce. She is Roxanne Gay’s “bad feminist” incarnate. On the one hand, she has been told that she can do everything for herself; on the other, she feels an overwhelming pressure to put other’s needs before her own. The historical experience of the feminine thus lives and dies in Gerwig’s wide eyes. When she cries, we cry with her, not because John is a keeper by any means, but because Maggie had a plan, Maggie was able to execute her plan, but in the end, Maggie ends up more lost than she was when she started.
Around the Staff