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Film Review: Maggie’s Plan

Tuesday, 17 January 2017  | Darren Mitchell

‘You can’t start a fire, you can’t start a fire without a spark’

                                                                                    - Bruce Springsteen, Dancing in the Dark

‘Cinema… tells us something about how reality constitutes itself’.

                                                                                    - Slavoj Zizek

Rebecca Miller has concocted a humorous contemporary exploration of love’s travails reminiscent of the comedies of remarriage that were at the core of Hollywood’s screwball heyday.

Thirty-something Maggie (Greta Gerwig – Frances Ha, Greenberg) says ‘I want to live honestly’. For her this means taking agency according to a plan, her plan, which necessitates blithely pulling others’ strings to meet her desires. Firstly, to bear a child, not through the uncertain fate of coupling, but through a college friend’s donated sperm. Secondly, to help university colleague John (Ethan Hawke – Boyhood, Dead Poets Society), the ‘bad-boy’ of ficto-critical anthropology (yes, it is a real discipline, and strangely enough one of its leading lights is an Australian academic), complete his master work, a novel, as well as save him from an unhappy marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore – Still Alice, The Hours), a cold (Danish), exacting Anthropology Professor at Columbia University. Maggie has a child and marries John. Later, when the original plan seems to be in need of radical reassessment, Maggie sets out on her grand plan to reunite John and Georgette, aiming to make everyone happier.

Maggie’s Plan borrows tropes of fairy dust from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dippy manipulations from Katharine Hepburn, and angst-ridden barbs from Woody Allen. There are staged debates, an academic conference (headlined by Zizek, alas absent from screen, the real enfant-terrible of twenty-first century ‘Theory’), books in every corner, and literate conversation at every turn.

Local reviews have been unanimous – ‘sharply observed, and occasionally profound’ (Daily Telegraph), ‘refreshingly complex’ and ‘terrifically funny’ (The Guardian), and ‘a delightful screwball comedy for grown-ups’ (SBS).

Rebecca Miller, wife of actor Daniel Day-Lewis and daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, has enjoyed an eclectic career as actor, writer, director and artist. Here she marshals all that experience to forge the panoply of filmic arts into an acerbic picture of modern relationships. ‘The idea I had was to try and put a very modern story in what is our great American form: the screwball romantic comedy’, where you aren’t required to ‘leave your wits at the door’ and ‘the audience is honoured and thought of as just as smart as the people who made the movie’.

One way this intelligence is displayed is through the idea of the medium of cinema itself. We learn early on that Maggie’s driving force is to ‘not leave my destiny to destiny’. This attempt at control is not only a plot device, but also enables Miller to create a cinematic construct of a ‘secularised’ outlook on the world.

That is, secular as a way of being in the world that assumes there is nothing transcendent. As Charles Taylor in A Secular Age would suggest, it is a secularism characterised by a ‘self-sufficient humanism’ locked in an ‘immanent frame’. Maggie’s Plan is a film that perfectly inhabits this idea, turning viewers into anthropologists. Commonly we view films conscious of the screen’s frame, allowing us to maintain our distance from its internal reality. But through Miller’s relentless use of a horizontal gaze we are compelled to observe the players almost as if we are unseen presences on the set. The camera places us within this world of unbelief, akin to ‘virtual reality’.

This is particularly noticeable as the exceptions that present a vertical angle are rare and telling. A bird’s eye view is shown of Maggie and John in a university courtyard seated in playful discussion of another chapter of what will remain throughout the film as his great unfinished novel. It presents us with a luminous moment where the two characters are enthralled in each other’s company as befits their marriage that is shortly to come.

On another occasion we glimpse Maggie and John descend into a gambling den. Here, Maggie will experience not being in control, a signal that, despite her earnest and sincere efforts, she will ultimately need to relinquish her project. Miller’s primary camera position allows the film to work not only on our senses but through them. These exceptions jolt us into realising how limited the characters’ perspective is and pull us back from unreflective immersion.

Miller also plays with the idea of the frame itself. This time she presents two scenes that remind us we are inside a closed world where the characters’ moral decisions are adrift without any transcendent mooring.

Guy, the high-school friend and now pickle entrepreneur, is situated between two rooms at the doorway threshold, framed by this positioning as neither coming nor going. He delivers one of only two explicit moments in the film of transcendent contemplation: he had studied maths but was scared of its perfection; he had touched the ‘hem of its garment’ but chasing its beauty would be too much for him.

Another scene has Maggie biting on a pickle having been dumped with yet another chapter of John’s book that is increasingly a story of their relationship, her life. She speaks to John who is framed in an internal window, again between two rooms. Maggie grasps that this is how she now sees him - she has realised that the suggestions she is encouraged to contribute are all too revealing. The set-up ensures we also grasp this distance as well as her trigger for (unconsciously at this stage) reconsidering the pickle entrepreneur. Briefly we are reminded of our observer status, that we are looking through the cinematic frame. Miller’s touch here is light and we quickly rejoin the anthropological journey.

John explains that ficto-critical anthropology brings together observation, story-telling and ‘Theory’. Miller’s expertise is to show how cinema can adopt a ficto-critical anthropological stance even whilst she humorously skewers the academy’s foibles. As one reviewer has put it, Miller succeeds in shifting ‘from the philosophical and abstract to the secular and precise… so rooted in earthly concerns that the quotidian takes centre stage’.

Strongly drawn characters inhabited by adroit and nimble performers guarantee this success. Hawke and Moore animate plain John and uptight Georgette to be more than comedic stereotypes of opposites (re)attracting. Gerwig’s authenticity in her sensible shoes and reassuringly warm cardigans winningly belie Maggie’s indifferent puppeteering. As Miller has said, ‘I wanted there to be a mystical overlay to the film – the idea that there is almost another layer of reality that nobody is quite keyed into’. Ultimately, à la Taylor’s critique, Maggie has no hitch for her plan. Even the brief resort to Quaker contemplation appears to be no more than faddish mindfulness that steels her in her purpose. The essential spark is missing.

The ultimate lesson is not surprising: to plan to control others’ affections is to misread love in all its mysteries. The result is indeed an intellectually and emotionally satisfying twenty-first century romantic comedy: contemporary secularism exposed; laughs along the way.

Darren Mitchell is a PhD student studying Anzac commemoration rituals, member of St Barnabas Broadway and Zadok film reviewer.

This is the original, full-length and unedited version of this review, which was first published in Zadok Perspectives (132, Spring 2016, pp.27-28). In our attempt to shorten the review to fit in the available space, the editing regrettably affected the substance and meaning of some of the text, and the version that appeared in Zadok Perspectives did not accurately reflect the author’s original version.

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