In Maggie's Plan, we've got an outreach specialist for an arts org who yearns to have a child on her own (Greta Gerwig); a "ficto-critical anthropologist" (Ethan Hawke) who finds it hard to be tied down to marriage with kids; the anthropologist's wife, a professionally ambitious and conversationally off-putting cultural studies professor from Denmark (Julianne Moore); and a man who makes pickles (Travis Fimmel).
All of the above live in Brooklyn and wear ostentatiously Northern European clothing — bulky sweaters, military overcoats, oddly cut corduroys, peasant shawls, etc. Even the pickle guy. So before they even open their mouths we feel as if we're in Woody Allen territory, circa 1986. But when they start talking, it's strictly Noah Baumbach or Lisa Cholodenko turf — echt cosmopolitan with a strong whiff of the intelligentsia, quick-witted and talky. Talky to an extreme that sets the scene as surely as a quick camera pan across the contents of a bookshelf. The subject is affairs of the heart, for people to whom love is an academic stratagem.
Maggie's Plan is by actress-turned-filmmaker Rebecca Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, who made Personal Velocity, The Ballad of Jack and Rose (starring her husband, Daniel Day Lewis), and other smart modern character studies for educated urbanites. So we can see instantly that we're in the right place at the right time with the right guide. And with Gerwig, Hawke, and Moore, the right players.
Gerwig's Maggie is a distillation of all the Gerwig characters that have come before. We can trace the actress' ascent to the heights of romantic comedy in a reasonably straight line, from Hannah Takes the Stairs and Baghead (mumblecore love and mock-horror, respectively) to Damsels in Distress (as a Whit Stillman-style smart-mouth coed) to Lola Versus (an early-period vehicle) to the Baumbach parlay of Greenberg (she steals the movie from Ben Stiller), Frances Ha (her best, until now), and Mistress America. She might hold the record for number of movies named for her character, before age thirty. And yet her Brooklyn wannabe-single-mom Maggie has an underdog's charm as she arranges for Guy the pickle man (Fimmel) to donate the sperm for her latest project, little knowing that she would fall in love with one intellectual whirlwind (Hawke's John) and have to fight another one (Moore's Georgette) for him. Gerwig has the gift of making a role that's firmly in her comfort zone seem like a fresh undertaking every time — a precise mixture of naiveté, canny observation, and her essential self-deprecating charisma. Plus a new development: a hint of the cut-throat.
Director Miller's dialogue, concocted from a story by book publisher Karen Rinaldi, puts a sparkle in the mouths of everyone concerned. Hawke and Moore stretch out and frolic in Miller's lines as the devotedly self-smitten lecturer ("'Like' is a language condom") and his severely stereotypical Scandinavian witch of a wife ("No one unpacks commodity compression like you do," she murmurs to John). It's as if the basic situations of a Baumbach screenplay were injected with generous humor to outweigh the bitter insecurity — although there is plenty of the latter. Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader, typecast as they may be, make the ideal "sympathetic married folks" foil for these people's hilarious preoccupations. This may be the best cast Gerwig has ever worked with. It certainly contains some of the best dialogue.
Miller's directorial grace notes are thick on the ground around Gerwig, Hawke, and Moore: Wallace Shawn onstage at the cultural conference; the hot whiskey scene; the literary event for Georgette's book; Maggie's Quaker fortress of solitude, Maggie and John's Chinatown fling, etc. These beautiful bohos are too good-looking to have jobs like this. Their lives are unerringly picturesque. But when we tear it all down the show belongs to Maggie, scuttling across the floor like a crab to answer her doorbell. Gerwig marches on.