There have been several recent attempts to subvert the tropes of the mainstream, modern romantic comedy, such as the gender reversal in 2014’s “That Awkward Moment,” the meta “They Came Together” and “Trainwreck” starring Amy Schumer’s commitment-phobic bad girl. Nonetheless, those movies disappointingly fell back on entrenched conventions, particularly the third act grand gesture and final resolution. The credit of coming closest to following through on its promise to undercut the typical narrative of the genre in recent memory goes to writer/director Rebecca Miller’s (“The Ballad of Jack and Rose”) latest film, though it too loses its power of surprise by at least the end of the second act.
Applying her patent awkward bossiness that still magically reads as charming, Greta Gerwig (“The Dish & the Spoon,” “Frances Ha”) stars as Maggie, the antidote to the typical rom-com protagonist. She’s forthright, efficient and refreshingly real—as opposed to the purposely objectified and deservedly reviled manic pixie dream girl. Not that Maggie doesn’t have her own assured mania: she’s convinced she’ll never find a suitable partner so has decided on single-handedly raising the baby she plans to mechanically conceive with a hipster artisanal pickle maker Guy (Travis Fimmel), a former math genius she met in college.
Gerwig shines as Maggie so even when her plan goes awry, as they inevitably do, and she’s paired up with the ever-pretentious Ethan Hawke, the result at first isn’t entirely awful. It helps that Miller has crafted the perfect persona for the simpering actor; he plays John, an adjunct instructor in the obscure field of “ficto-critical anthropology” and aspiring novelist. But there’s a hitch, as there inevitably is, John is married, albeit unhappily of course, to Georgette, a narcissistic Danish tenured academic played mostly in broad strokes by Julianne Moore, unsuccessfully reprising her role as Euro avant-garde artist Maude in “The Big Lebowski.”
What Miller’s script gets oh-so right is the rapid erosion of identity caused by the friction of long-term relationships. (As Maggie’s best friends, married to each other, Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph exhibit a hostility toward each other that’s both funny and a tad too realistic.) Not long after the initial grand gesture from John to Maggie, which occurs at the first juncture of the movie instead of near the end, our formerly intrepid female lead, who at first longed to be the gardener to John’s budding flower, finds herself overburdened, wanting to be left to raise her daughter alone like in her original plan—and as her mom raised her, a story she reveals in a wonderfully tender moment in her early courtship with John.
The film’s conflict begins the moment most other romantic comedies would end. It’s a bold and commendable move but regrettably the plan of the film’s title, Maggie’s plan B, so to speak, gives more on-screen time to John and Georgette’s rekindled relationship, including a slow scene showing a meandering hike in the snowy woods, than displaying how Maggie’s new scheme could help her recoup her previous dynamic energy. Maggie needs a new plan.