Maybe it's the bouncy jazz score; maybe it's the scenes of bickering banter on the tree-lined streets and in the sundry sunny lofts of New York City. Maybe it's the cast of hyperverbal, existentially conflicted middle-aged principals, most of whom are inclined toward either academia or the arts; maybe it's, for example, Maya Rudolph, dispersing dressing on what is visible even from a distance as a kale salad in a university cafeteria, uttering this line of dialogue about Ethan Hawke's John Harding: "He's one of the bad boys of ficto-critical anthropology." Or maybe it's the elaborate domestic predicament into which these hyperverbal principals stumble headlong. But for any of the above reasons, it's impossible to view Maggie's Plan, the screwball rom-com starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore that opens Friday, as anything other than a Woody Allen knockoff.
The quality of the copy may be a matter of perspective, but given Allen's detritus lately, Maggie's Plan is in fact a much more spirited and credible exploration of modern-day romance. And it's pitch-perfectly cast.
Gerwig is Maggie Harden. She's a Quaker-born arts administrator at the New School in New York City and has decided that she's going to have a baby. She's not waiting to fall in love: That prospect seems impossible after a string of exclusively brief and unhappy relationships. Instead, she's opting for a donation of sperm from a former college acquaintance, Guy (Travis Fimmel), who's now a "pickle entrepreneur," forever on the brink of a major deal with Whole Foods. This decision sits uneasily with Maggie's longtime pals (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph, glittering in small roles), who protest that Guy has no concept of personal space.
In the midst of all this, Maggie meets John (Ethan Hawke), a wannabe novelist who works as an adjunct anthropology professor at the New School and tends to play second fiddle to his imperious Danish wife Georgette (Julianne Moore), who's tenured at Columbia.
"You know how in every relationship there's a gardener and a rose?" John tells Maggie in an early scene. "I'm the gardener."
John and Maggie fall in love! Go figure! And Maggie's plan for single-parenthood is derailed by the fast-blossoming affair.
Three years later, Maggie begins to resent John, who's not pulling his weight in the marriage, continues to struggle through his novel, and still talks to Georgette daily on the phone. Meanwhile, Georgette has published a well-received memoir recapping the intimate details of the John-Maggie affair. In the face of these unwieldy personal dynamics, Maggie and Georgette develop a kinship and hatch another plan, in the attempt to restore order to what have become very messy lives indeed.
Written and directed by Rebecca Miller (most recently of 2009's Pippa's Plan, plus the longtime wife of Daniel Day-Lewis), Maggie's Plan manages to convey the rise and fall of complicated relationships via a script that's often bracingly, scorchingly true. Even its moments of absurdity — snowed in at an anthropology conference in Quebec, John and Georgette and the rest of the gathered attendees dance to an acoustic, salsa-fied performance of Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" — feel stolen from someone's lived experience. Gerwig, Hawke and Moore (and even the character actors Hader, Rudolph and the lovably dopey Fimmel, uncaged from Viking apparel) are a flat-out fun ensemble.