REVIEW: Maggie’s Plan [2016]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 98 minutes | Release Date: May 20th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Rebecca Miller
Writer(s): Rebecca Miller / Karen Rinaldi (story)

“‘Like’ is a language condom. Trust me.”

The character of John (Ethan Hawke) within Rebecca Miller‘s Maggie’s Plan is writing his first fiction novel not-so-loosely based upon his life—a loveless marriage with a bigger narcissist (Julianne Moore‘s Georgette) than he that’s up-ended by a hopeful affair with a control freak (Greta Gerwig‘s titular Maggie) just narcissistic enough to allow him to fully embrace his ego. This novel starts out promising. It’s stripped down, funny, and possesses a surrealist bent that tickles Maggie into falling in love. But after three years it’s still not finished. The story bloats out of control, the metaphor becomes too broad, and the plot has nowhere to go but cliché. Georgette tells John he needs to rewrite it with honesty and I wonder if the film deserved the same advice.

It’s extensively self-reflexive, but not in an endearing way. The “plan” of the title hinges on Maggie discovering that she’s falling out of love for John. She broke his marriage up—well, he did that all himself—and now it seems to have been for naught. Why not try to get him back together with his ex-wife Georgette? They obviously still love each other so maybe their reuniting as a family could be Maggie’s gift of apology. There’s not much more to the film than this and the trailer pretty much spells it out in a minute and a half as opposed to the 98-minute runtime. I’m not saying there isn’t more nuance with the introduction of a ticking biological clock, but that’s merely just color.

At its core is a mess of a carefully calculated relationship love triangle yearning to culminate in a happy ending that can never feel anything but contrived. Georgette even says so when Maggie confronts her with the plan that she initially rejects before admitting she has nothing to lose. It’s a tale of self-absorbed cretins who mean well despite not being able to help themselves from ruining the lives of those they touch. We feel sorry for each for about a minute before learning how loathsome and petty they are. They each want to feel loved yet find it impossible to love as anything more than an abstract concept. Love is rendered as an accessory, children the product of whim to either be cherished or discarded for career.

Mina Sundwall‘s Justine—John and Georgette’s oldest—appears to want to comment on this in a meaningful way, but just as her parents and Maggie ultimately dismiss her stake in the chaos, so too does Miller. Rather than allow this child to blow things open, she simply helps the two matriarchs see what they already know. Neither stops being the exact same person that got them in this predicament in the first place, though. They’re just openly cognizant of their failures. Everyone is by the end actually. Their acknowledgement of their own shortcomings and learning to live with them rather than erase them is really the only thing that happens during the course of the film. The rest is a tornado of emotional turmoil that miraculously provides joy.

That tornado isn’t very fun, though. It’s actually somewhat heartbreaking. So to see the pain it creates melt away because these characters refuse to be anything more than two-dimensional stereotypes with literally one trait that defines them is a frustrating realization. They are written to be cute and quirky but I’m not sure they have any redeeming qualities to earn redemption. I feel sorry for the children because they are going to need therapy by the time they’re thirty, always an afterthought and sometimes little more than a dismissed effect of marriage—enjoyed as an idea rather than raised with responsibility. And yet they literally provide the adults, albeit unintentionally, much-needed epiphanies that read as farcical but play as reality. I never knew whether to laugh or cringe.

This all sounds as though I hated the film in the long run, but that’s not entirely true. While I liked it enough to appreciate Miller’s intent, I found myself lost towards her execution. The main comic relief to combat the complexities of love comes from Maggie’s friends Tony (Bill Hader) and Felicia (Maya Rudolph), but that’s not their actual purpose. They too are manipulated cyphers throwing truth bombs like the children, networking characters together, and catalyzing the climactic sense of absolute clarity at Miller’s whim. Even Guy (Travis Fimmel)—a throwaway pawn who’s both esoteric hipster “loser” and mathematical savant depending on what’s needed—is unnaturally present. The film spans four years time, but the handful of days we become privy to contain way too many coincidences.

It may all be intentionally rendered this way, but I can’t for the life of me comprehend why. It’s just sad enough to not fully work as a comedy and funny enough to fail as poignant drama. There are glimpses of authentic romance, but most times these interactions are methodical and obvious because each has been set-up to happen three scenes previous. Miller has ostensibly created a film of the book John is writing rather than of the lives being lived that inspire it. These are caricatures of people possessed by reviled characteristics whose happiness makes me second-guess humanity. Either the message is that we are all as narcissistic as this trio deep down or that good things happen to bad people anyway. Both choices leave me numb.

[1] Left to right: Ethan Hawke as John and Greta Gerwig as Maggie
Photo by Jon Pack, Hall Monitor, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Julianne Moore as Georgette
Photo by Jon Pack, Hall Monitor, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Left to right: Maya Rudolph as Felicia and Bill Hader as Tony
Photo by Jon Pack, Hall Monitor, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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