The writing was never a problem in Rebecca Miller’s movies, but it has taken awhile for her to become a director.
Her earlier films, such as “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” had many good scenes, but they didn’t land with any accumulated impact. “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” (2009) was a strong step forward for Miller, but her new film, “Maggie’s Plan,” is a step beyond that. She’s a genuine director now, not just a writer who directs, and it’s officially time to start looking forward to Rebecca Miller movies.
Her achievement in “Maggie’s Plan” has many aspects to it, but they boil down to two: how smooth and easy it all is and how messy and wrong it might have been.
It’s a story with several shifts in time and mood, with characters whose ambitions, affections and motives change, almost without warning. But at no point does the viewer feel lost, left behind or pushed into some unearned perception. The film could have seemed clumsy, and it’s anything but.
There’s also a lightness in the tone that nonetheless allows for real emotion and impressive performances. “Maggie’s Plan” doesn’t quite transcend the limits of the romantic comedy genre, but it pushes at them.
At the center of it all is Greta Gerwig, who radiates niceness and authenticity, even as she is playing a character who could be easily misperceived as a control freak. At the start of the film, Maggie has given up on the idea of finding a lifelong partner, but she knows she wants a baby. She also knows the sperm donor she wants: a mathematician turned pickle entrepreneur (Travis Fimmel).
Even as she is planning that, she is trying to fix the life of a professor at the New School, a ficto-critical anthropologist who aspires to be a novelist. John (Ethan Hawke) is a married man with a high-powered academic (Julianne Moore) for a wife, and Maggie becomes his chief reader and cheerleader.
It would be so easy and so wrong to think of Gerwig as merely a charming personality, someone quirky and appealing who just stands in front of the camera and acts like herself. Actually, she’s brilliant.
Take a look at the long close-up in which Maggie talks to John about her parents. Gerwig seems to be acting five things at once, experiencing sadness, humor, desire to connect, feelings of regret and conflicting impulses to reveal and conceal. But what she’s really doing is getting out of her own way and experiencing all the richness of the moment and letting us see it in all its complicated emotionality.
Not everyone can do that, nor can they build, from what might have seemed a character of erratic impulses, a portrait of emotional courage. Gerwig — and no doubt Miller — makes Maggie into someone with an uncomplicated yet sophisticated capacity to know what she feels, to admit what she feels and to act on her feelings. This makes her a little like a child, but wise.
It also makes Maggie someone who maybe should be planning other people’s lives. Over the course of “Maggie’s Plan,” Maggie improvises her own course and those of others, and as the movie goes on, the filmmaker’s relationship with the whole notion of planning isn’t simple.
While the characters on screen keep insisting that some things can’t be planned, the movie seems to be arguing something else — that making a grand design for your life is possible, but only if you’re able to face what you want and accept the consequences.
Rated R. Time: 1:38.