Rebecca Miller makes movies that feel lived-in and way out there — two modifiers that don't often co-exist. Maggie's Plan, Miller's fifth feature following Angela, Personal Velocity, The Ballad of Jack and Rose and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, could be conventionally labeled a New York romance for a generation bookended by Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach. It's a love triangle involving Maggie (Greta Gerwig), an arts career advisor at the New College, who falls for John (Ethan Hawke), a real "panty-melter" of an anthropology prof, who chooses Maggie over his Danish wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore) — a legend in ficto-anthropology — and their two children. Think you know where all this is going? You're wrong. Miller thrives on complication, on irresistibly flawed characters who refuse to stay in the neat outlines drawn around them. That's why Maggie's Plan feels so exhilarating, so hard to pin down, so lyrically adrift.
Take Maggie, a character Gerwig plays with larky appeal and no trace of cuteness. Love is a concept Maggie fixates on, but can't sustain in life. Her relationships evaporate with depressing regularity. She looks up to Tony (Bill Hader), her no-bull friend from college, but he's married to Felicia (the ever-wondrous Maya Rudolph). Their child makes Maggie think she should have one. Forget finding the right man. She finds a guy named Guy (Travis Fimmel), a math wiz making his career in artisanal pickles, who agrees to fill her turkey baster. OK, he'd like to do it the normal way. But normal is not part of Maggie's plan.
That's a setup for sitcom, which happily is not part of Miller's plan. Basing her screenplay on an unpublished novel by editor-publisher Karen Rinaldi, Miller refuses to sand off the rough edges or the hit the usual beats. John's seduction of Maggie comes out of nowhere. In one swoony scene he undoes the buttons on her nightgown with sensual slowness. Then she's pregnant ... the real way. Then — props to Miller for the ballsy move — the plot skips the usual blah-blah and leaps three years into the future. Maggie and John are married and parents. He mopes around like Proust 2.0 trying to finish his mountain of a novel. Maggie does the bill paying, raising their adorable child, Lily (Ida Rohatyn), and also nurturing John and Georgette's two kids (Mina Sundwall and Jackson Frazer).
Most women in Maggie' shoes would freak. Not Maggie. She hatches a plan, another one. The upshot is to get John and Georgette back together so these two like minds can find unity in their shared passion for ficto-anthroplogy (the barbed digs at academia are indeed intentional). I won't give away Maggie's methods, except to say that Miller makes them hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt. In these scenes, the emphasis shifts from Maggie to Georgette, leaving the magnetic Moore to pocket the movie and take it home. Georgette's clipped accent and tightly wound hair suggest a model of Teutonic terror. But Moore, in a remarkable portrayal of subtle shifts, plays her for real, that means for the hurt as well as the humor.
At one point, Maggie describes, not unkindly, John's novel-in-progress as "screwball surrealism." That's an apt definition for this film as well, with its main characters propelled by the internal creative impulse. Miller knows what it's like to grow up in the arts. Her father is playwright Arthur Miller; her mother, Austrian photographer Inge Morath; her husband, the estimable actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Miller's own arts education includes acting, literature, painting, and sculpture. Her most recent novel, 2013's Jacob's Folly, concerns an 18th-century peddler reincarnated as a 21st-century fly buzzing around New York. In short, Miller both respects and healthily ridicules the ambitions of a churning culture that can turn out phrases like commodity fetishism.
Miller is an authentic original, playful and casually profound. In Maggie's Plan, the verbal and the visual dance to her bidding. Without pushing or showing off, Miller creates a breezy comedy that pulls you up short. Buoyed by faultless actors who mesh beautifully, Maggie's Plan tickles you with laughs that can — suddenly or even days later — choke you up with emotion.