Nature abhors a vacuum, it's said, and as I watched the first comedy from director Rebecca Miller (Personal Velocity), I had the distinct sense that she was auditioning for the job of the Next Woody Allen. Because, let's be honest, as much as we've loved him, even admired him at times, the old boy's lost his touch, and someone has to fill the role of America's intellectual comic auteur. Now more than ever, in this age of multiplying superhero franchises.
Maggie's Plan confirms that Miller ranks with the most promising applicants for the position, even if it's more like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger than Hannah and Her Sisters. Like most of Allen's classics, the film is set in New York, though we find ourselves in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan — a Brooklyn portrayed as a hipster haven of almost Portlandian proportions.
Early on, we're introduced to a bearded artisanal pickle entrepreneur played by Travis Fimmel. His name is Guy, and his gherkins aren't what Maggie (Greta Gerwig) needs a small batch of. Single and in her thirties, she has hatched a plan to have a baby on her own and chosen Guy, a college friend, to serve as her sperm donor.
As fate — or, more accurately, romantic comedy convention — would have it, however, at this precise juncture, Maggie's path crosses that of a tall, dark stranger. Well, a stranger, anyway. Ethan Hawke is convincing as a sort of rock-star academic, whose field of expertise is ficto-critical anthropology (I checked: It's a thing). A paperwork mix-up brings the two together at the New School, where he teaches and she counsels graduate students on "the bridge between art and commerce."
It's a pleasure to watch Gerwig in a role that allows her to retain her idiosyncratic fizz while keeping her feet more firmly on the ground than she did in films such as Frances Ha and Mistress America. Those characters could've used exactly the kind of guidance that Maggie provides here.
Miller and cowriter Karen Rinaldi have created a sly, frequently funny film that starts as a traditional rom-com and ends up flipping those traditions on their heads. Maggie falls for Hawke's John after he asks her to read a chapter of his in-progress novel and shares horror stories about life with his demanding wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore). She's a fellow anthropologist whose Danish accent and brusque manner suggest a fashion-forward member of the SS.
Hawke and Gerwig do wonderful, subtle work, easing their characters incrementally from life as lovestruck sweethearts into coupledom with the kind of problems that artists and academics in Allen's movies often have. A daughter, Lily, enters the picture, but that doesn't prevent Maggie from eventually realizing that life with John isn't doing it for her. He's self-absorbed and nearly as dependent as her child, a situation that calls for Maggie's Plan B.
Movie-critic law prohibits saying more, except that this plan offers a refreshing feminist twist, essentially taking what appears to be a standard romantic comedy and turning it inside out. I certainly didn't see it coming, and neither does John.
In addition to the subversive storyline and superb performances from the leads, Maggie's Plan benefits from a dream ensemble cast that also includes Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and Wallace Shawn. And there's some seriously snappy dialogue. At a conference held by the Ficto-Critical Anthropology Association, for example, a fan approaches John and gushes, "No one unpacks commodity fetishism like you do."
Hey, it may not be Annie Hall, but it'll do nicely until a filmmaker funnier and more intelligent than Miller comes along.