The indie world needs to break out of the Woody Allen mold
Rating: R Grade: C+
With “Maggie’s Plan,” co-writer-director Rebecca Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, seems to be meandering into the precious indie territory of Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach. This is a surprising choice considering her eclectic start as an artist. With renowned artistic parents – her mother, Inge Morath, was a photographer – she grew up surrounded by a diverse gathering of creative types, some like sculptor Philip Grausman and photographer/cinematographer Arnold Eagle served as early tutors and mentors. Miller has acted in works by Klaus Maria Brandauer (“Seven Minutes”), Mike Nichols (“Regarding Henry”), and Alan Rudolph (“Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle”) and penned a collection of prose portraits of women, “Personal Velocity” that became the basis for her second feature film.
All of which is to say that Miller has dared to follow her own muse, free from even casual outside influence. There has been no steady or apparent game plan or agenda driving her career, beyond critical remarks focusing on the role of male figures in the lives of her female characters (that some have linked to her relationship with her father). I find Miller to be a refreshing artist, full of boundless intellectual, philosophical, and creative curiosity, untethered to form or function.
Back in the day, long before my days as a critic, when I was just a carefree kid watching any and everything for the sheer joy of it, I sat through the early Woody Allen oeuvre with a similar sense of respect and wonder. Allen used neurotic self-deprecating humor as a compass, traveling through a series of narratives that seemingly defied the best efforts to pin a label on them. He appeared to have a bottomless pool of ideas and the drive to bring them to life, as if his characters personally depended on him and his effort.
Somewhere along the way though, inspiration faded into routine and his output lost some of its vital originality, but he couldn’t stop, and Allen’s work settled into a brand. Now, we live in an indie age where “Woody Allen” is a genre, with installments that alternate between good and bad with seeming regularity.
“Maggie’s Plan” has the feel of being sculpted to fit into his mold. Working in writer-director mode, Miller (with story credit going to Karen Rinaldi) fashions a heroine in the titular Maggie (Greta Gerwig) who plays like a distaff clone of a classic Allen-type. She is a neurotic New York figure, a contemporary woman questioning where she is at this moment in her life. Poor Maggie (Gerwig) longs to be a mother, but has no romantic prospect with family starter potential, so she decides to enlist a sperm donor, a college acquaintance named Guy (Travis Fimmel), but soon she’s caught up in an affair with John (Ethan Hawke), a married writer and professor. The situation spirals – never quite out of control – but the point seems to be that (wo)Man plans and God laughs.
Maggie’s world is populated with quirky friends – best buds Felicia (Maya Rudolph) and Tony (Bill Hader) – and John’s dominating ex Georgette (Julianne Moore), and the City, which can’t help but steal scenes. We know the milieu all-too well, and the familiarity comes not just from Allen, but the connection to the work of Allen-indie acolyte Baumbach. He’s another writer-director enthrall with Allen as a genre and his recent work (“Greenberg” & “Frances Ha”) has taken full advantage of his muse-like relationship with Gerwig.
Like Baumbach, Miller locks Gerwig into a tight and thoroughly recognizable groove. She is adrift in a sea of cuteness with sex appeal just off on the horizon, but she’s in no hurry to reach the shore. She kvetches with the best of them, and slips free of complications with the greatest of ease. Having interviewed her, during the promotional tour for “Lola Versus” in 2012, I found her a bit disconcerting because she is isn’t merely playing a type; she is this character.
Taking all of this into account, “Maggie’s Plan” seems like Miller’s version of a studio release; maybe not a franchise cash-grab, but an attempt to prove that she can “do” something more conventional. If God were a critic, I think she might bestow an indifferent smirk on this routine roundelay. (tt stern-enzi)