Life is a messy business.
That would be a self-evident truth to most people but not to Maggie (Greta Gerwig), who, despite being highly intelligent and an accomplished professional whose job involves bringing together arts graduates and businesses, can’t quite come to grips with the fact that life doesn’t confirm to neat and tidy standards.
Most particularly that love, which is famed for not marching to the beat of a logical drum, won’t fit into her preconceived idea of how life behaves.
Convinced that all she has to do is take charge of her own destiny and everything else will follow through in perfect unison, she decides to inseminate via a “donation” from an old uni friend, “pickles entrepreneur” Guy (Travis Fimmel) who is clearly in love with her but unable to articulate his feelings.
Maggie of course is oblivious to Guy’s romantic aspirations since they aren’t a part of her grand design for life, an outworking of a mindset that grew from having to act like an adult early in life, looking after her mother who while brilliant, was hopelessly unable to keep across the more practical, banal aspects of raising a child.
If you’re paying attention at this point, it’s clear that Maggie’s life is verging on the chaotic already but since we only see what we want to see, she sails on regardless, readying herself for a life of single motherhood, fulfilling career choices and ongoing pondering about her inability to sustain a relationship for longer than six months.
Then noted ficto-critical anthropologist John (Ethan Hawke), one of the “bad boys” of the discipline enters her life and all the planning in the world can’t compensate for the glorious messiness that results.
The joy of Maggie’s Plan, a lo-fi screwball romantic comedy that defies expectations and the established tropes of the genre in exemplary style, is that the protagonist remains blissfully unaware that her life is spiralling way out of her control.
It’s not until old college friend Tony (Bill Hader) and his wife Felicia (Maya Rudolph) engage in some tough loving that Maggie comes to slowly realise that you can’t simply dictate how love behaves.
Love it turns out, and anyone who’s experienced its magnetic pull knows exactly what it involves, is barely-controlled chaos, a bundle of emotions and instinctual gut reactions that doesn’t conform to the tidy order of an Excel spreadsheet or a 5 year plan.
By the time Maggie realises that, she’s become John’s mistress then his wife, had a child with him, Lily (Ida Rohatyn), is a step mum to his children Justine (Mina Sundwall) and Paul (Jackson Frazer) and most bizarrely of all, a friend of sorts, with John’s ex-wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) a relationship initially fraught, as you might expect, by all manner of complications.
And she has, somewhat mistakenly, proposed to Georgette that the two of them collude to get John back to his original family nest, on the basis that he never stopped loving his first wife and has fallen out of love with his new one.
It’s a quirky narrative contrivance that at first blush reeks of implausibility and in fact it is called out as such by Georgette and later by John when he finds out what their highly-unorthodox plans are (and is predictably furious at first), but it works precisely because it is exactly the sort of thing that “everything can be planned and ordered” Maggie would think is a good idea.
That it isn’t of course is immediately obvious to everyone but her and by the time she realises it probably wasn’t the most sensible or realistic course of action, the wheels are in motion, Georgette decides it’s worth giving a go and the wheels of life chaotic are spinning themselves in ever unpredictable patterns.
While Maggie’s Plan, written and directed by Rebecca Miller, never really takes off in true farcical screwball fashion, inhabiting the spirit of a Woody Allen comedy without its absurdist outworkings, it’s nonetheless a highly amusing examination of what happens when a blissfully-unaware craving for order comes head to head with love in all its bull-in-a-china-shop cavorting.
Packed full of highly believable characters who exist in reasonably fashion depending the increasingly absurdist decisions guiding their actions, and a phalanx of witty observations and pithy oneliners, many of them redolent of the New York City milieu popularised by Allen’s films, Maggie’s Plan gleefully takes on all our assumptions about what we can and can’t control about life.
It’s comforting to think that destiny can be cajoled and corralled, and it’s the lure of that fatally-flawed idea, the siren song of which all of us have fallen prey to at one point or another, if not our entire lives, that forms the central narrative of the film.
Because no matter how silly Maggie’s idea is, the reality is that pretty much all of us wouldn’t our arm and leg to have the messy situations we get ourselves into so neatly and perfectly resolved.
But as Maggie’s increasingly chaotic life makes clear, there’s rarely anything neat or perfectly resolved about life, and the sooner we embrace that truth the happier we will be.
That Maggie and pretty much else in this very funny, skillfully written and easily-identifiable film look to be stumbling to some sort of happy-ish though never surgically-tied off is not the point; the storyline makes it clear that this due more to the irrational happenstance of life and love than to any carefully-coordinated, successfully-delivered planning on anyone’s part.
The reality is life is messy and the sooner we, and Maggie, comes to grips with that, the happier we will be.