Greta Gerwig, Julianne Moore Shine In "Maggie's Plan"

It’s hard to fault writer-director Rebecca Miller for tailoring “Maggie’s Plan” so precisely to the strengths of her leads. The film is an obvious amalgam of the best films of both Greta Gerwig and Ethan Hawke (their projects with Noah Baumbach and Richard Linklater, respectively). From the naturalistic dialogue, to the considered passage of time, to the sneakily funny observational humor, it’s all here. But the cribbing is more than welcome because it’s all great, ladled into a deceptively deep anti-romantic comedy basin. Even if you’ve seen these ingredients before, you’ve never seen them prepared quite like this.

Picture “The Parent Trap,” only if the father’s new squeeze were the main character, sick of her newfound beau and eager to pawn him back off to his ex. This is what ultimately becomes of Maggie (Gerwig), thirty-something bachelorette. This is her best laid plan.

Act I sees our lead attempt to artificially inseminate herself with the sperm of an upstart pickle magnate named Guy (Travis Fimmel). Before she knows it, Maggie and free-spirited anthropology professor John (Hawke) are madly in love with each other, John leaving his loveless marriage to the brilliant but cold mother of his three children, Georgette (Julianne Moore). This all occurs within the first thirty minutes of the film, complete with a breathlessly awkward but devastatingly true-to-life romantic confession between the two new lovebirds. Then the real fun starts.

The screenplay jumps ahead a few years. Maggie and John happily have a 2 year-old daughter together, but their relationship has eroded. Maggie’s Wisconsin Quaker roots have melded badly with John’s big city narcissism, leading to a marriage short on communication and long on frustration. In the broadest of strokes, Maggie is a good person and John isn’t, but the film is so much more layered than that. Miller’s screenplay (based on a story by Karen Rinaldi) plays brilliantly with the perils of love in the 21st century: namely, that we so often expect our partners to remain the exact same person we fell in love with while we ourselves reserve the right to change.

Moore’s Georgette is the key to all this, eventually revealed to be much more (if not necessarily better) than the aloof academic her reputations suggests. The Oscar-winner is predictably terrific in the role, disappearing into this professorial but confused middle-aged woman who desperately wants a traditional family unit. Hawke is similarly on point, bringing just enough likability to an archetypically dopey writer type to keep us from hating him entirely. He’s a doofus, but he’s our doofus, that person we all know who has all the best intentions with all the wrong results.

Coming off the sparkling coming-of-age picture “Mistress America,” Gerwig delights in the chance at something much deeper. Her character’s unwitting descent into the mud with her self-centered husband is both funny and relatable, Gerwig’s performance sharply underlining one of the picture’s main theses: that romantic comedies are bullshit and that we’re all selfish people with selfish motives barely scraping by in this crazy, messed up universe.

A scene in which Maggie rejoices that she’s found a great legal parking spot only to get a ticket anyway is a tidy summary of everything going on here, but it’s more than just clever metaphor. It’s great storytelling, imparting themes and characterization without actually saying it. The film does this best in its incredible finale, bookending one of the film’s big throughlines that’s isn’t communicated through dialogue – mostly through glances and body language – but hangs heavy all the same.

“Maggie’s Plan” isn’t a fall-down hilarious comedy, but it is a warm, knowing one, even as it faces down our abject failures as human beings (and the idea that those failures often define us). And if we can laugh at that, at least a little bit, is there anything we can’t laugh at?

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: May 20, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Rebecca Miller
Screenwriter: Rebecca Miller
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexuality)