It's better than it used to be, but the situation for female filmmakers in Hollywood remains dismal. A recent study by USC Annenberg revealed that, while more and more films at the festival and indie levels are directed by women, less than five percent of mainline studio films have a female helmer. When defense is made of this shameful statistic, it usually goes something like this: Big-budget motion picture directing is a specialized skill set that, due to experience and temperament, very few women possess. To refute this argument, I present Rebecca Miller, director of Maggie's Plan.
I'll have to admit that I was not too enthused when I saw the trailer for Maggie's Plan, but the previews do not do this sweet little confection justice. Greta Gerwig stars as Maggie, whom we meet walking through New York in a joyous sequence set to a Desmond Dekker rocksteady song. She's on her way to meet Guy, an artisanal pickle entrepreneur with a keen math mind who has agreed to provide Maggie with some sperm so she can artificially inseminate herself. Maggie is an academic with both an M.F.A. and an M.B.A. whose job is to help arts majors translate their skills into the entrepreneurial world, so applying the same level of logical analysis to her reproductive choices just comes naturally. Her friends Tony (Bill Hader) and Felicia (Maya Rudolph) are supportive of, if vaguely amused by, her plan to get pregnant with "the pickle man," and Maggie's carefully planned life appears to be moving forward without friction until she has a chance meeting with John (Ethan Hawke) in the bursar's office of the New School. John's also an academic and novelist (Felicia calls him "one of the bad boys of ficto-critical theory"), and the two quickly hit it off. But their budding romance is complicated by the fact that John's already married to Georgette (Julianne Moore), a brilliant sociology professor with an outrageous Eastern European accent. Overwhelmed by his wife's success and worn out by the stresses of raising two kids, John runs to the younger Maggie after a fight with Georgette, just as Maggie is dealing with the fallout from a failed attempt at auto-insemination. Then we cut forward three years, where Maggie has a baby girl with John, and Georgette has written a book about the experience of losing her husband to a younger woman.
A lesser writer or director would have inserted a montage detailing the breakup, marriage, birth of the new child. Miller cuts straight to the meat of the story, filling in the gaps with telling details. Things aren't going well between John and Maggie, and, after she meets Georgette at a reading of the book that casts Maggie as a home wrecker, she decides John would be better off with his ex-wife and sets out to rectify the situation through subterfuge. After calling her out for her craven plotting, Georgette agrees, and the pair set out to gaslight John into believing he has made the decision to switch women again.
There's a strong whiff of Shakespearian sex comedy, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, in this rom-com, which is perhaps understandable, seeing as Rebecca Miller is the daughter of none other than Death of a Salesman playwright Arthur Miller. Her screenplay is as tight and brainy as we all pretend Woody Allen's screenplays are. Her visual compositions, created with cinematographer Sam Levy, are as beautiful as they are formally perfect. Miller concentrates on artful placement of pairs of actors' faces as they deliver dialog like "I'll be back in a jiff with the jizz!"
Gerwig carries the picture with the confidence of Sophie's Choice-era Meryl Streep. Moore is clearly having a blast as Maggie's foil, who can even use a blender in an intimidating manner. And much could be written about the treatment of Hawke's character. After an endless parade of clueless women characters written by men, he's a clueless man written by a woman, and it's kind of fascinating to watch. I was reminded of a quip whose authorship escapes me: "To women, men are just big dogs who can talk."
If I have any criticism of Miller's work, it is that Maggie's Plan seems a little too fussed over. But given that the film's neurotic perfectionism mirrors the personality of its protagonist, maybe that's a feature instead of a bug. Miller wraps the whole complex, tragicomic affair up in a brisk 98 minutes, which should serve as an example to the directors of the bloated tentpoles propping up the major studios. Maggie's Plan was distributed by Sony, and it's by far the best thing on the conglomerate's slate so far this year. They'd be smart to turn over the keys to the kingdom to Miller so she can show the boys what a real woman director can do.