In a Pickle

Maggie’s Plan a film by Rebecca Miller.  With Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore. ****

The first thing to be said about Maggie’s Plan is that it is a comedy.  I don’t care what Rebecca Miller has done in the past and I don’t care how serious the conversation seems at the beginning of the movie.  All that talk about Ficto-Critical Anthropology is supposed to be funny.  The fact that Julianne Moore is speaking in a phony Danish accent (and that she, like every other mother in Brooklyn, has bi-lingual children) is supposed to be funny.  It isn’t that they couldn’t get a real Danish actress.  It’s that they’re making fun of things.

When you’ve decided to have a baby by artificial insemination, and you’ve already picked your sperm donor (and he offers, at the last minute, to, you know, do it the old fashioned way.  You gratefully refuse this offer), and you then fall in love with a married man, and at the very moment you’ve just inseminated yourself there’s a knock at the door, and you have to skitter across the living room floor on your butt because you want all those little sperms to have a fighting chance, it’s hard enough for them to swim toward the goal but you don’t want them to have to swim uphill, and it’s your new boyfriend, and he wants to, you know, do it: that’s a comic moment.   Get it?  It’s like taking coals to Newcastle.

I think the problem is Ethan Hawke.  Greta Gerwig is funny when you just look at her, and Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader are well known comic presences, and Julianne Moore with a phony Danish accent begins to grow on you.  But Ethan Hawke is not a laff riot, so when he—as a professor of the aforementioned ficto-critical anthropology named John—meets Maggie (Gerwig) by coincidence, then just happens to meet her when he’s out in the park editing his novel (?) and asks her to read the first chapter, we take it as a serious moment, because he seems inward, and vaguely troubled.  It’s not Woody Allen meeting Annie Hall, as it’s supposed to be.  It’s more like Steve Buscemi meeting Annie Hall.  And when he reaches out and asks for her help, we know what he’s really doing, but we manage to ignore that.  We think he wants help with his novel.

A word to all you young (and not so young) women out there: when a man, especially a man you don’t know very well, asks you to read the first chapter of his novel, don’t do it.  Don’t even think of doing it.  Unless you just want to get laid too.  The problem isn’t just that Hawke isn’t a comic actor (licking his fingers when he eats isn’t enough).  It’s that he and Greta Gerwig have no chemistry whatsoever.  She’s so wild and wacky and out there, and he’s so serious.  She seems much more a match for the pickle maker (Travis Fimmel) whom she’d chosen as her sperm donor.  When John falls to his knees in Maggie’s apartment and tells her he loves her, we don’t believe it.  Even that’s not the problem.  We can’t see how she believes it.  We can’t see why she’s falling for this guy.  What’s to fall for?

Then she marries him, of all the moronic things to do.  Maggie, who had decided to go it alone, who had realized that her relationships never lasted longer than six months and that she had to find some other way if she was ever going to be a mother, marries this self-absorbed, vaguely troubled novelist, who has a wife and two teenaged kids.  He doesn’t change.  What a shock.  When we pick up again on Maggie, her daughter is three years old, she and John have their own place, and he still hasn’t finished his novel.  He doesn’t sound particularly far along.  He doesn’t help with the kid, he doesn’t help with the housework, he doesn’t help with anything.  Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to marry novelists.  Unless your baby is extremely independent and likes to spend lots of time alone.

But after they’re together, weirdly, the movie picks up.  This is one of those rare movies that gets better as it goes along, until the very last scene, my wife and I both agreed, the last image, was the best in the whole movie.  John is the same lump he always was, but Maggie gets to know his ex-wife Georgette (Moore); she begins to hang out with his children, both of whom are interesting and smart; the women form an odd bond, and Maggie begins to hatch her Plan.  I had thought her plan was to have the baby, but that isn’t the master plan.  The master plan is to get back where she started, to live in the light of what she realized as the movie opened.  And that takes some doing.

Mina Sundwall, as John and Georgette’s daughter Justine, is great.  She seems like the one sane—and perhaps the one mature—person in the story.  Julianne Moore gets better and better.  Greta Gerwig falls into her natural role, as a goofy, lovable, hopeless, but nevertheless smart and very attractive woman.  She’s the Annie Hall of her generation.  The accent on lovable.

But it’s a comedy.  It’s okay to laugh.  Even when John falls to his knees and confesses his love.  That’s probably the funniest scene in the movie.

Except for the last one.  Don’t miss that.