IT FEELS UNFAIR to compare a movie that's as undeniably good as Maggie's Plan to lesser contemporaries, but it's hard not to see it as a corrective to so many other failed relationship comedies set in academia. Finally, here's one that's as funny as it is clever, that depicts pompous characters without itself being pompous. It's the perfect movie for anyone who appreciates Woody Allen's wit and intellectual dialogue, but always dreamed of pairing them with self-awareness and realistic women.
Greta Gerwig, who's so irresistible at playing such similar kinds of characters that I like to think of her as Lady Jack Nicholson for NPR listeners, plays Maggie, who works at New York University, where her job involves "being a bridge between art and commerce." On the cusp of undergoing artificial insemination, she meets John Harding (Ethan Hawke), the "bad boy of ficto-critical anthropology" and "a real panty melter," according to Maggie's friend (Maya Rudolph). Harding, who has written a book called Rituals of Commodity Fetishism at the Tail End of the Empire, enlists Maggie to edit his first novel. Chief among writer/director Rebecca Miller's skills is being conversant in the language of ponderous intellectuals without losing her satirical edge—she allows them their humanity without missing a chance to poke fun at them.
While this kind of movie would normally eschew punchlines the way Greta Gerwig's wardrobe eschews overt sexuality, Maggie's Plan has actual laughs, like with punchlines and everything. Miller has a gift for turns of phrase and juxtapositions that twist the knife. Like when Harding gets a call that his son "twisted his ankle in Eurhythmics class," followed by a smash cut to an establishing shot of the sign outside the school: "The Danish-American School of New York City." Perfect.
Both Woody Allen's Irrational Man and Maggie's Plan gave us "bad boy professors" and May-December romance (much less so in the latter, Gerwig is 32), but Maggie's Plan actually explores the implications. And depicts such a thing as it might really happen on planet Earth. Which partly explains why Maggie's Plan is so much like so many other movies, but also so much better.