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NYFF Review: Maggie’s Plan Is a Twist on the Comedy of Remarriage

4 out of 5 stars.


The “comedy of re-marriage,” a subgenre of “screwball comedy,” itself a subgenre of “romantic comedy,” and that a subgenre of “comedy” (and down the rabbit hole), was most popular in the 1930s, and for good reason. During the Great Depression, couples held off marrying, and even if they did, it wasn’t uncommon to delay family plans until times were better. Then there were the increasing number of very public and surprisingly casual divorces of celebrities (especially in Hollywood), and marriage suddenly seemed to be taking on a new meaning that had to be negotiated and reconsidered.

If security, family, and morality (and/or religion) are no longer the reasons to marry, what is the reason? So screwball comedies tended to redefine marriage as something else—something that should be motivated by genuine love and partnership (seems so logical now)—and that led to some great couplings, such as Myrna Loy and William Powell who made marriage look fun in The Thin Man (and criminally underrated Libel Lady), but also movies about the splits and reunions of couples, such as The Awful Truth or Mr. and Mrs. Smith. There was even the meta-joke in My Man Godfrey of literally casting real-life divorcees as a couple destined to unite.

But that genre eventually fell out of popularity. Post-war, marriage wasn’t some joke. It was an institution (whatever). In truth, divorce is a really painful event, especially when there are kids involved, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t comedy to be had in the nature of this institution we so willingly accept (often without questioning the purpose or structure) but seems to be so inherently flawed. Rebecca Miller, whose previous films have been slightly more dramatic looks at the personal lives of deeply flawed women (Terminal Velocity and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) clearly sees that there is still fun to be had, and has written and directed a screwball comedy of remarriage that has a pretty traditional approach … with the exception of the sperm donor. And viewed from that perspective, the film actually works remarkably well.

If there is any actress working today who has the same slightly-left-of-center approach that recalls Carol Lombard, Irene Dunne, or Myrna Loy, it’s probably Greta Gerwig. Love her or hate her (I’m pro-Gerwig), she has a very specific style that’s uniquely her own, which clearly is infused in all her characters. It isn’t that she plays the same character every time; she just isn’t the type of actress that disappears into characters, which used to be pretty common with classical Hollywood movie stars like Lombard, Dunne, and Loy.

And while you never forget that this is Gerwig on screen in Maggie’s Plan, I would argue that the character of Maggie is completely different from what she’s played before. Maggie is professional, capable, organized, a little old-fashioned, and almost unbearably optimistic. She wants to have a child on her own, because she desperately wants to be a mother. There’s no sense of desperation or ticking clock influencing this decision; she just wants to be a mother and doesn’t want to confuse motherhood with marriage anyway.

Maggie asks a casual acquaintance (a bearded Travis Fimmel), a pretty chill dude with a pickle company, to be her donor, which he does happily. I should say right now, being a big fan of Crossing Delancey, my radar went off as soon as I learned there was a dashing pickle man in this movie, and there should have been more of him. But at the same time, Maggie has developed a friendship with academic John (Ethan Hawke), a professor at the college she works at, who claims to be in a horrible marriage with Georgette (Julianne Moore, using a “comic” accent).

Ultimately giving in to their budding romance, Maggie disregards the sperm donation and has an affair with John, which leads to a marriage and a child. Maggie now has her child but is saddled with a husband who turns out to not be the complete victim of that bad marriage she once assumed. He’s pretty disconnected from all three of his kids, is selfish in his marriage, and can’t seem to take care of his basic needs. And he still seems to have a stronger connection to Georgette than Maggie. So Maggie plans to do a little match-making to get her husband out of her hair and put the family back together, but putting him back together with ex Georgette.

That’s a big hurdle the movie has to get over, and it isn’t exactly clean jump. The kids are treated a little too much like accessories in the movie, and while Gerwig and Moore (even with her questionable accent) are very good in their scenes together, Hawke isn’t really a screwball comic actor. But what makes the movie pretty winning as a whole is the fact that Miller has chosen to make a completely non-judgmental movie about marriage and have all the characters ultimately be completely likable, even with the character archetypes of the other woman, cheating husband, and harpy wife the film initially starts with. All the characters show that flaws and all, they are deeper and more lovable than their stereotypes would be in lesser films about affairs. Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph are also really funny as Gerwig’s married best friends, although Rudolph is definitely underused.

So Maggie’s Plan is ultimately a pretty charming screwball comedy, even if I have a bit of a problem with its finale moment (literally, I’m talking like three shots). No, it isn’t going to be a classic of the genre, but it is certainly sweet and energetic enough to be worth a look. And one of the things I really admire is the choice to make a modern movie that feels hopeful and optimistic about love and family. It isn’t perfect, but Miller definitely shows a talent for writing and directing comedy, making me hopeful that there will be more comedies to come. After all, a few more female voices in comedy is certainly something to celebrate, especially a voice as specific and smart as Rebecca Miller’s.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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