There is a specific type of indie romantic dramedy that has popped up over the last few years that owes a deep debt to the work of John Cassavetes. He brought a cinéma vérité style to American independent films that added a gritty realism to a genre that had only ever been light and fluffy. Films like "Faces" and "A Woman Under the Influence" paved the way for the modern mumblecore movement.
Mumblecore took the low budget, handheld aesthetic, but emphasized dialogue and character relationships over plot. Directors like Andrew Bujalski, The Duplass Brothers, Joe Swanberg and Lynn Shelton pushed the genre forward, creating some true masterpieces and some painfully boring dreck.
Greta Gerwig was one of the early mumblecore darlings, starring in early genre films like "Hanna Takes the Stairs" and "Baghead." If Gerwig's name was in the credits, the film was almost guaranteed to be biting, sarcastic and emotionally raw. She is almost synonymous with the genre, "Indie Romantic Dramedy."
That is why her inclusion in "Maggie's Plan" almost works against it. The film tells the story of Maggie (Gerwig), a young academic who desperately wants to become a mother. She meets a ficto-critical anthropologist at her university named John (Ethan Hawke), whom she spends months talking to and eventually falling in love with. John is married to Georgette (Julianne Moore), a cold and clinical Danish professor.
Three years pass, and Maggie and John are married with a beautiful daughter. But Maggie is very quickly falling out of love with John and hatches a plan to get John back together with Georgette so that everyone is happy and no one is left alone. Maggie's plan is the centerpiece of the entire film, but also its weakest element.
The moments that make up Maggie and John falling in and out of love are some of the most painfully incisive and honest moments I've seen in a film all year. There is a moment midway through the film where Maggie and John are lying in bed together and she asks him if he wants her to read his horoscope. His casually uncaring "No" is one straw too far for her, and the painful anger Gerwig shows on her face is perfect.
Gerwig, Hawke, Moore and an against-type Travis Fimmel (Ragnar from 'Vikings") are all excellent in the film, and their chemistry makes the movie breeze by. Rebecca Miller's script is filled with precisely drawn moments of truth and hilarious observations on relationships and couplehood, but the romantic comedy template steps on the tails of what is almost a classic little film.
The film soars whenever it forgoes the typical romantic dramedy structure, but when it forgoes emotional honesty for genre convention, it feels too familiar. Having Gerwig in the film means there will be an honest and powerful performance, so relying on manufactured moments sells short what is otherwise a truly wonderful film. The lessons Cassavetes taught are not so easily forgotten.
Dir. Rebecca Miller
Now playing at Tin Pan Theater