In the economy of book-to-film adaptations, it’s rare that the movie precedes its novel foundation. Yet the latest from writer-director Rebecca Miller (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) does just that: Based on a yet-unpublished novel by publisher Karen Rinaldi due out next year, Maggie’s Plan developed from a few early chapters Rinaldi passed on to Miller, the director explained, thinking they might make a good film.
Spoiler alert: They did. Maggie’s Plan, which screened Thursday evening in New York ahead of its May 20th wide release, features an all-star cast in the form of Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, and Julianne Moore as a fraught love triangle, and Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, and Travis Fimmel as the comic relief. But it’s not a comedy in the traditional sense — though rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it finds levity in the inevitable messiness of relationships. As Maggie (Gerwig) says of John’s (Hawke) novel in the film, it’s “screwball-surreal.”
Between its aggressively New York setting (panning shots of Washington Square Park, a few cameos by the Union Square Greenmarket and sleazy underground gambling rings of the Lower East Side) and unconventional humor, comparisons between Maggie’s Plan and Woody Allen’s filmography are inevitable. But, according to Gerwig, the movie is more indebted to the classic comedies of Golden-Age Hollywood.
“It’s not stories about people having a meet-cute and falling in love for the first time; it’s about them falling in love for the second,” she said, citing Preston Sturges’s Palm Beach Story, Howard Hawks, and His Girl Friday as more appropriate comparisons.
“Those movies are the fucking best,” she added. But there’s also a dash of Shakespearean romantic scheming, right down to a reference to Titania in the film’s last act.
Maggie seems to have it all together: She wears sweater vests; she “takes constitutionals”; she helps old men cross the street and bright young things on the cusp of graduating from the New School bridge the divide between art and the real-world economy. She’s endlessly pragmatic, though also reads her daily horoscope. She just happens to also think she’s incapable of holding down a relationship for more than six months (never mind that she and Tony, played by a comically harried Bill Hader, dated for two years in college).
And yet, as she moans within the first minutes of the film, “I need a baby.” Not one for destiny, Maggie recruits a college acquaintance — a math major-turned-Brooklyn pickle manufacturer named Guy (Travis Fimmel) — as a sperm donor.
Destiny comes knocking anyways, quite literally, in the form of John, a professor of ficto-critical anthropology at the New School married to a heavy-hitter intellectual, a Columbia professor named Georgette. Their marriage is in trouble, and John seeks solace in Maggie’s emotional and intellectual support — she becomes his novel’s biggest, and only, fan. For counterpoint, by the end of the film, Georgette returns the cremains of her copy in an oversized Ziploc bag.
Georgette may be totally villainized before we meet her on screen — she’s referenced alternately as “glacial,” “terrifying,” and an emotional drain on her family — but, as incarnated by Julianne Moore, frigid she is not. Her first moments in the film find her fiercely debating the merits of the Occupy movement, and the film’s best punch line might just be the way she enunciates “Pussy Riot” in her unplaceable, purportedly Danish accent before the scene cuts away.
This introduction was Moore’s idea: “Initially, people only talked about Georgette at the beginning of the movie, and you never saw her,” Moore said. “I said, I think I’d like to see why she’s formidable, why she’s such an intellectual. … That, to me, kind of set the stage for the character.” This move crystallizes the female-forward ethos of the production; it’s unafraid to make its women power players, but it never preaches its feminism. When she first read the role, Gerwig said she envisioned a woman who was unafraid to take up space, “with her feet planted like an oak tree.”
“So often, women are always turning their body to create the illusion of slimness, or to try to get their best angle,” Gerwig said. “There was something about Maggie that I just felt like she had this frank stolidness.”
Maggie’s Plan spans years, and it’s only once after the birth of their daughter that the fractures in Maggie and John’s relationship reveal themselves. So, pragmatic to a fault, Maggie concocts a plan to reunite her husband with his ex. Georgette is game, seducing her ex-husband with lines like, “No one unpacks commodity fetishism like you do,” murmured with sultry panache. (You’ve got to love that intellectual humor.)
The scheme comes together in a Bruce Springsteen-soundtracked academic retreat when John and Georgette are snowed in together. (Though nothing in this film comes easy, and their story soon takes a turn once more.) The snow was real, Moore recalled — a two-foot dump the morning of shooting.
“It was sort of magical,” she said.