Film review: MAGGIE’S PLAN, from ‘Built For Speed’

Somewhere between endearingly quirky and irritatingly pretentious writer director Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan is the latest in what could be termed the alternative rom-com genre, a filmmaking style typified by the works of Noah Baumbach. It’s also part of that growing cinematic sub-genre, the Greta Gerwig film, in which Gerwig plays the lovably ditzy but still capable and philosophical young woman trying to negotiate romance and New York bohemia. Needless to say those who love Gerwig’s shtick will embrace this film while those who recoil at her kooky characters will be grinding their teeth throughout.

In this film Gerwig plays Maggie, a 30-something woman who decides she needs to have a baby but is unwilling to commit to a relationship and instead seeks a semen donation for artificial insemination. In the midst of this she encounters John (Ethan Hawke), a new lecturer in something called crypto-ficto anthropology at the university where she works. Falling for John, who is unhappily married to a severe Euro-intellectual ice queen Georgette (Julianne Moore), Maggie soon finds herself in the middle of a strange love triangle. As this odd situation developes Maggie, who has always organised people’s lives, hatches a strange plan which she thinks will resolve the situation for everyone.

Like recent Cameron Crowe films, Maggie’s Plan struggles to find a clear and satisfying tone as it drifts from relationship drama to quirky comedy to satire of bourgeois intellectual manners. It seems Miller was so enamoured of a particular type of young hip academic that she created the story simply to enter their world. Consequently, the plot lacks momentum and dramatic punch. The same could be said of some films by Woody Allen, a director whose work this film at times recalls, although Woody is able to explore psychology and characters quirks in a more insightful and funny way.

That’s not to say Maggie’s Plan fails as a comedy or drama. There are some funny moments particularly when Maggie’s acerbic fiend Tony (Bill Hader) is on screen. Also, the film provides convincing insights into the difficulties of relationships and parenthood. Added to that, the film makes effective use of music – particularly Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark – as an emotional release for the characters and a connection to their fading youth as Gen X-ers.

As Maggie, Greta Gerwig is mostly the same kooky, slightly befuddled character she seems to play in every film. Consequently, it feels odd when the film also tries to claim that she is some sort of disciplined control freak. Regardless, Gerwig still has that enjoyably idiosyncratic way of delivering lines that suggests someone with a slightly askew take on reality.   Ethan Hawke, is disappointing here, after his terrific performances in the Richard Linklater Before Midnight series, he’s bland and doesn’t convince as someone whom two highly intelligent women would desperately pursue. With here ‘Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle’ accent Julianne Moore is something of a caricature as the contemptuous academic Georgette but Moore is such a fine actor that she is able to make this oddball convincing. Maya Rudolph makes the most of an underwritten role as Maggie’s best friend.

Aussie audiences and Vikings fans will be pleased to know Travis Fimmel makes an appearance in this film even though he plays an awkward creepy guy who has pined for Maggie for years.

For those who can’t stand the cast or quirky hipster rom-coms this film will be a chore but for most audiences it will provide just enough enjoyable moments to make it worthwhile.

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: Drama/ romantic comedy.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Rebecca Miller.

Release date: 7th July 2016.

Running time: 98 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


Film review: THE SKELETON TWINS, from Built For Speed

Mark Heyman, who wrote the script for Black Swan, seems fascinated with emotionally damaged people desperately trying to cope with or conceal personal disappointments, family trauma and the wounds of their past.  He has collaborated with writer/ director Craig Johnson and producers the Duplass brothers, who produced the wonderfully melancholic romantic fantasy Safety Not Guaranteed to give us the unsettling, insightful, low-budget family drama The Skeleton Twins.

The twins of the title are 30-something brother and sister Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig) whose family was torn apart by their father’s suicide years earlier and who as adults, have drifted apart.  When Milo attempts suicide Maggie invites him to recuperate at the home she shares with her slightly gormless husband Lance (Luke Wilson). Milo’s arrival is the catalyst for Maggie to reassess her life and her relationship with Lance.  Milo also feels compelled to confront his troubled past, his struggles with high school homophobia and his previous ill-advised relationship with an older man.

This is a typical low-budget American indie dramas: quirky yet sensitive, leisurely paced and full of characters on the fringes of white suburbia trying to find their place in the world and/or cope with unsatisfying relationships.  It’s an amusing and thoughtful but oddly familiar film.

As Milo and Maggie, Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig have a wonderful chemistry as they effortlessly capture the tacit understanding and juvenile shared humour siblings have. Milo is at first extremely obnoxious and arrogant but to Hader’s credit he helps us to slowly warm to the character.  Kristin Wiig is typically wonderful, infusing Maggie with both zany humour and touching introspection. Luke Wilson at first seems a little too much of an amiable dope but he slowly reveals compelling layers to his character. Modern Family’s Ty Burrell has a brief but effective supporting role as a figure from Milo’s past. In an unintentionally comical performance (at least for Australian audiences) Boyd Holbrook plays Maggie’s Aussie scuba instructor with one of the least convincing Aussie accents of recent cinema.

The film suffers some script problems as it makes odd tonal shifts from melancholic drama to quirky comedy and leaves loose threads dangling regarding both Milo and Maggie’s past and present.  These flaws, thankfully don’t damage the film too much.

The Skeleton Twins is not the most original or revelatory piece of film-making this year but it contains enough funny and moving moments to provide a pleasing if not thrilling night at the cinema.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Comedy/ drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Craig Johnson.

Release date: 25th September 2014

Running time: 93 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.