by Chris Corbellini
Man meets woman. The man is married. He says unhappily so. So the woman wants to save him, take him in, love him, and build him up again. This is an ancient story, played out on park benches and hotel beds in every corner of every corner of every corner.
But what if that woman eventually wants to give that man back?
That’s the gist of MAGGIE’S PLAN, the latest indie romantic comedy starring Greta Gerwig. Year after year, Gerwig keeps winning these title roles because she can win us all over with that pouty, innocent face — even as she sets in motion a manipulative scheme to hand back her husband (Ethan Hawke) to the woman she originally stole her from (Julianne Moore).
Cold, right? Not this time. The events of MAGGIE’S PLAN are played out relatively lightly, so the casting had to be just right, with Gerwig front and center. It starts with Maggie’s admission that she is going to have a baby by herself. After a meet-cute we see Maggie fall in love with the Hawke character, a professor of anthropology, while reading some chapters of his novel. She begins talking non-stop about him to friends (SNL alums Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph), who are skeptical of this married man’s intentions. Sure enough, after a few icy scenes with the Moore character — a driven, tenured professor at Columbia — Hawke, who has philandering characters down cold at this point, quickly falls into bed with Maggie.
So Maggie steals the man, they marry, and raise an adorable daughter together. Two birds, one stone. But in their powder blue, Brooklyn apartment three years later, the grass is no longer greener. The man is still writing the same novel, still looking for approval from his ex-wife, and Maggie has basically become a nanny for the kids, and his personal maid. OK, then. Time to give him back. And that’s it for exact details. I’ll simply note that philanderers, while fun dates, are philanderers.
Again, the casting is rock-solid. Whether you can actually see this cast showcase their talents is an issue for the folks who pushed this movie through for a summer release. With FINDING DORY still swimming upstream into your wallet, and the remake of GHOSTBUSTERS about to shout to the heavens about girl power, there is little chance you’ll see MAGGIE’S PLAN in theaters unless you live in New York, or actively seek out the art-house theater in major cities (The Ritz at the Bourse in Philly springs to mind). So the question becomes, for future you toggling between cable channels in Spring 2018: Is Gerwig, Moore, Hawke, the SNL-ers and a screwball plot enough for you to watch this on late-night cable TV?
For New Yorkers, I’d go with probably. I nodded my head at a romantic montage in underground Chinatown, likely on Mott Street. I also shook my head when the editor cut from Gerwig walking across the street at Washington Square Park, and then followed that up with a scene with Hader in Union Square, as if they were the same place. You get curious about where they’ll shoot next, if the apartments are realistic, and how insular and even gossipy the world of academia can be in the Big Apple. And for a change a NYC movie wasn’t shot in summertime, or Christmas, or in the leafy, cinematic bloom of autumn. No, it’s the slushy, grimy, snow-is-about-to-melt city the locals know in March. I’d give it three stars for New Yorkers.
For everyone else, it could be a lesser film. There are moments of warmth and tears here, but make no mistake: this story is about a con game. Two women are manipulating a needy man – with an against-type spin that these strong, beautiful females are not competing, but rather in total agreement that a certain end result is the best one. They are playing marriage Ping-Pong, without his consent. Still, it’s standard operating procedure in movies that anything can happen to a cad who leaves his wife for a younger woman. An audience is ok with anything in those cases, barring death.
From here, maybe Gerwig gets a shot at a quality big-budget flick like the rest of the headliners here, and not a tepid remake of ARTHUR. She can exude joy while we watch from a distance, make you root for a misanthrope to change for her, and is not afraid to grind through take after take to get a 30-second scene right. Maybe Spielberg or Abrams will have something special planned for the actress down the line.
After watching enough of these rom-coms, you notice what I call a “first look” from the leading lady. They are all different, of course, but the gist of it is: this man has been in front of me all this time, why didn’t I see him before this way? Why have I been so silly all this time? Now it all makes sense. I leave it up to you whether you believe this happens in real life. But that “first look” certainly happens in movies that try to best capture the romanticism of real life. Gerwig has a sweet one. One that can close a movie on an upbeat note.
Oh, and keep an eye on actor Travis Fimmel in the future — especially if he’s in the same room as your girlfriend. He plays Ragnar on the TV series VIKINGS, and though new to the big screen, he already has the presence of a young Russell Crowe.
And now I really want to find that underground hangout in Chinatown.