The eponymous Maggie of MAGGIE’S PLAN is a wisp of a winsome waif, a college career counselor with a gentle demeanor and a determined resolve that can move mountains. As played with a solemn quirkiness by Greta Gerwig, she is a woman who aims to live both honestly and ethically. Alas, her aim is less than true. A walking contradiction, she teeters with blithe insouciance between a controlling nature that spawns “helpful” manipulations of those around her with life-shattering consequences for them, and a wholesome sweetness that gives her machinations the purity of genuinely wanting to make everyone else happy. What ensues becomes a cautionary tale about forcing Destiny’s hand, sparkling with puckish wit and wry observations about what fools these mortals be.
Maggie’s initial plan is to have a baby on her own. Having taken careful stock of her prospects for a lasting relationship, and decided that her chances are slim to none, she enlists an artisan pickle-maker (Travis Fimmel) with personal space issues and eccentric ideas about headgear from her college days to make the genetic donation. When he shows up at the appointed time with a bouquet instead of a full specimen cup, Maggie might suspect that she hadn’t anticipated every variable involved. She doesn’t. Nor does she see it coming when she falls for John (Ethan Hawke) a married college professor of middling academic reputation that fate may or may not have sent her way. Or maybe fate was sending Maggie to this frustrated novelist in order for him to free himself of Georgette (Julianne Moore) the high-strung narcissist of a wife who is sucking the soul out of him with her superior intellect, dazzling academic career, and aggressive sweaters.
Whatever the case, three years later, Maggie and John are the proud and married parents of an angelic daughter, and Maggie is beginning to fret that after playing primary caregiver to husband, child, step-children, and even Georgette is making her fall out of love with John. And that’s when the other plan kicks in after best friend Felicia (Maya Rudolph) opines as an off the cuff remark that it’s too bad she can’t give John back to his ex-wife.
Writer/director Rebecca Miller has fashioned a deliciously clever script, where the multiple versions of chaos that Maggie strews in her wake each resonate with one another, as though reality were trying to pull itself together and find a workable equilibrium. Rudolph and Bill Hader as Tony, Felicia’s husband (and Maggie’s college romance) provide the descant of a squabbling marriage that works despite itself, they also provide the Greek chorus of commentary on Maggie’s misadventures, and the occasional deus ex machina as Destiny decides to assert itself. Hawke, as the plaything of fate brings a grounding sincerity to a character suffering the delusion of experiencing free will. It’s Moore, though, who neatly steals the film as a Scandinavian ice queen who is not as together as she thinks she is, nor as impervious to anything as trivial as an emotion. The way she narrows her eyes and purses her lips when observing Maggie at their first meeting that is reminiscent of the way an entomologist would note the particular flutterings of freshly pinned butterfly. Purring in a mélange of Nordic accents and idiosyncratic lisps, she is at once hypnotizing and off-putting with her precisely tousled top-knot and condescending air.
MAGGIE’S PLAN is as wise as it is funny, and it’s very funny. It’s also compassionate in its take on the messes we make in spite of ourselves as we suffer the delusion that we’re outsmarting what the universe has planned for us.