With the maddening, charming Manhattan fable “Maggie’s Plan,” Rebecca Miller comes into her own as a filmmaker rather than a literary stylist. Not that the movie’s particularly cinematic, just that Miller — the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, the author of novels and short stories, and a director whose movies often struggle to get from page to screen — finally seems to have relaxed and let her characters do the talking.
And, boy, do they talk. “Maggie’s Plan” falls squarely into the camp of yammery New York farces pioneered by Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “While We’re Young”), and it even borrows Baumbach’s recent lady, Greta Gerwig, for the title role. The novelty — more than a novelty, it’s a necessity — is that this is the rare occasion when one of these brittle, neurotic social comedies serves as the vehicle for a woman’s sensibility rather than a man’s. In the process, Miller quietly but forcefully reinvents an entire movie genre.
Gerwig, who can be irritatingly mannered in some films and an endearing klutz in others, has one of her most nuanced roles as Maggie, a scatterbrain and a control freak — the actress makes the contradictions work. A college administrator who lives for helping others plan their lives, she’s single and ready to become a mother with the help of an earnest sperm donor, Guy (Travis Fimmel), an artisanal pickle entrepreneur with facial hair that screams Brooklyn. He’d prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, but Maggie is into avoiding emotional entanglements, until she meets and falls for John (Ethan Hawke), a professor and aspiring novelist.
Problem: John is married with kids. His wife, Georgette, is a fearsomely chilly academic played by Julianne Moore with a Teutonic lisp on loan from Marlene Dietrich by way of Madeleine Kahn in “Blazing Saddles.” Among its other merits, “Maggie’s Plan” is a screwball comedy about academia and its excesses — the way post-doctoral double talk ends up fencing us off from our own feelings. It’s the kind of movie where the sentence “Nobody unpacks commodity fetishism like you do” is meant as a romantic come-on — and it works.
Without getting into spoiler territory, Miller (with an assist from co-writer Karen Rinaldi) follows her characters over several years, tracking their matings and meetings and comings and goings. At a certain point, Maggie looks at her life and wonders if everyone wouldn’t be happier the way they were in the beginning, and she sets about to make it so. Disaster ensues, but the kind that opens eyes and builds unexpected connections.
There’s more than a bit of Jane Austen in the DNA of “Maggie’s Plan” and more than a bit of Emma Woodhouse to Maggie, a sweet-natured meddler who can’t understand why things go kerplooey in her face. Says Georgette, “There’s something pure about you. And a little bit stupid. I can’t help it — I like you.” We do too, and the addition of Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as Maggie’s weary, wise married friends gives the audience good company with whom to watch from the sidelines.
The movie’s most welcome grace note is the way the character of Georgette gradually shades from a hilarious cartoon villain into a comic but deeply sympathetic figure, with Moore adept at both the haughtiness and the humanity. The movie, ultimately, is about the relationship between the two women in John’s life, to the point where Hawke almost disappears from the picture. The movie flunks the Bechdel Test with abandon but mostly with awareness — it’s about the impossibility of being sensible, of having a plan, when it comes to love.
Miller remains a self-conscious writer and director, though, and there are moments in “Maggie’s Plan” in which you sense her arranging the emotional furniture for maximum impact. Her dialogue can turn annoyingly precious with metaphor, and that pickle entrepreneur pops up at the most conveniently inconvenient times. Every so often you wonder if the director isn’t aiming at becoming the Nora Ephron of the Chelsea smart set. (Or, worse, the Nancy Meyers.) But then she’ll throw in an image that just about breaks your heart, like a shot near the end of the stiff-backed Georgette on ice skates, gamely and wobblingly trying to join the human race in the middle of the rink. With “Maggie’s Plan,” Miller seems to be admitting that’s not such a bad idea.
Directed by Rebecca Miller. Written by Miller and Karen Rinaldi. Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Travis Fimmel. Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 98 minutes. R (language, brief sexuality).