Running in Circles
By Eric Hynes
Dir. Rebecca Miller, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics
The first thing Maggie (Greta Gerwig) does is to help a blind man across a New York City street. The second thing our Good Samaritan does is to baldly proclaim the premise of the movie. Single and childless at 30, she tells her best friend (Bill Hader), whilst strolling through the Union Square market, that she plans to enlist a sperm donor and have a child on her own. Okay, got it, but waitâ€”who is Maggie? Why is this good-looking, socially adjusted, fertile, young straight woman taking this tack, and how can she afford the procedure, let alone the parenting? Has she been spurned, wronged, or abused by men? Does she actually want children this much? Dunno, but best not to look too deeply. Forget about having oneâ€”Maggie is a plan.
During an era when American independent films privilege ambiguity, textures, and baggy shapes, Rebecca Millerâ€™s satiric romantic comedy revels in plot. Rather than build from a central character on up, accruing personal histories and details until our object of fascination becomes a complex person, the film aligns itself with a plotting protagonist whoâ€™s all make-it-happen action, progressing from one romantic/domestic reality to another and letting its collection of characters catch up. In order to expedite this movement, the players are introduced as identifiable types on sight. Maggie is a goodhearted control freak (exhibit A, she helps blind people; exhibit B, her friends state aloud that sheâ€™s a control freak); her donor guy, helpfully named Guy (Travis Fimmel), is a bearded Brooklyn-based pickle purveyor (which Miller, along with the New York Times Style section, obviously thinks is triply redundant); her eventual paramour, John (Ethan Hawke), is a rakish, self-obsessed novelist in need of doting/mothering; and Johnâ€™s wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore), is an indeterminately European academic ice queen (who secretly has a heart ofâ€¦). Got it? Good. And . . . go.
Maggie gets Guy to supply his purportedly smart sperm. Meanwhile Maggie befriends John at the New School, where they both work, and starts reading his long-in-the-works novel. At the very moment that Maggie begins to inseminate herself, John shows up professing his love. Cut to a few years later, and Maggie lives with John and their young child, as well as with, at least part of the time, Johnâ€™s three children from his marriage to Georgette, whoâ€™s since published a brutal account of Johnâ€™s betrayal. Things didnâ€™t go quite according to plan, and neither does this new plan, which calls for an even newer, more radical plan that crazily aims to fulfill that first one. Structurally, this is classic screwball material, and Maggieâ€™s doomed-to-fail-but-also-kinda-succeed solution should be a hoot to watch unfold. Unfortunately it is not, and the reasons for this are almost too many to track.
For starters, the film just isnâ€™t very funny. The dialogue lacks snap and freshness, relying on stereotypes, received wisdom, and ripped-from-the-thinkpiece-headlines in lieu of any discernible comedic voice. An anti-fracking protestor is treated as a sight gagâ€”oh yeah, weâ€™ve all seen one of thoseâ€”without offering any sense of whatâ€™s funny about its sighting. Its thuddingly sheltered and imprecise notionsâ€”that Brooklyn is all spacious lofts and bearded picklemen; that academic panels are Buckley v. Vidal, kabuki-like postmodern pissing contestsâ€”are bad enough, but there doesnâ€™t even seem to be any agenda to its reductiveness. Hawkeâ€™s character specializes in Ficto-Critical Anthropology, which saddles him with a punchline as a professionâ€”much like Maggieâ€™s Quaker upbringing and wool-cardigan-on-wool-turtleneck costuming is a punchline as characterization, none of which gets carried any further. And all of which reminds one that the number of successful riffs on Don DeLilloâ€™s apocalyptic academic satire White Noise hovers perilously close to zero.
This shifts the burden of humor onto the actors, all of whom gamely do what they can with the little that theyâ€™re given. Making that burden even greater is the fact that none of these characters is a plausible human being. Stereotypes can be effective and funny, especially if thereâ€™s sharpness to their shape and intentâ€”see the films of Mike Judge, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and in certain contexts, Woody Allenâ€”but when presented as plot-device functionaries, theyâ€™re just enervating and scornful. Thereâ€™s little to convince us that these characters have feelings, that thereâ€™s a reason for their attachments, that they have or experience stakes rather than life events as plot machinations. Thereâ€™s no evidence that these people like anything about each otherâ€”they often seem as actors playing characters whoâ€™ve been placed into the same room and challenged to justify, on the fly, what theyâ€™re doing together (a potentially interesting gambit if it were the filmâ€™s cause rather than its effect).
Hawke fares the best because his character is Millerâ€™s most convincing, and because he plays it straightâ€”heâ€™s well cast as a shambling egotist, and sympathetic as a dupe. Moore is handed a Disney villainess and wisely runs with it rather than against it. Her scenery chewing doesnâ€™t make it work, but at least sheâ€™s in on the joke, albeit a mirthless one. Gerwig has it toughest, as sheâ€™s tasked to charm her way through the entire film with precious little alighting her path. Her Maggie is emotionally inscrutable, a cipher protagonist whose motivations never deepen beyond an inexplicable plan, whose complications are limited to being a person who thinks sheâ€™s doing right by everyone but isnâ€™t (a fact that we never have to discern, as itâ€™s repeatedly stated by others). Gerwigâ€™s not yet at the point in her career when she can elevate poor dialogue, though Iâ€™m not sure many actors outside of Meryl Streep can claim to be so capable. Her Maggie is constantly stating the obvious, underscoring her feelings, and telegraphing liveliness through gesticulations rather than emotionally motivated gestures.
Thereâ€™s some wisdom to Millerâ€™s conception of a love triangle centered by a man who wants to be, and is good at being, mothered, and flanked by two multitasking, capable women differently and incompletely attracted to being his complement. Scenes that detail the difficulties of three working parents juggling children between two homes, and of how the women wind up carrying the heavier burden while the man shirks responsibilities in minor but multiplicative ways, suggest a sharply observed family drama straining to get out. There are additional moments and aspects of promise, from the often unexplored, confused erotics between a writer and reader, a thinker and a doer, a hot and a cold. But these notions never animate, and worse, are often instantly flattened through obvious, dead weight dialogue. â€śYou are such a hall monitor,â€ť Haderâ€™s Tony tells Maggie, then later calls her, â€śLittle Miss Quaker two shoesâ€ťâ€”pinning the tail on the donkey over and over. And welcome efforts to complicate the characters play too schematically, such as Georgetteâ€™s turn from gargoyle to human, a progression only made legible because Georgette was initially shot, performed, and treated as a gargoyle before being shot, performed, and handled as a human.
Maggieâ€™s plans are mocked and critiqued throughout the film, but for a final joke, Miller doesnâ€™t detonate but rather affirms them. Our progression hasnâ€™t been from a neatly plotted view of the world to a messy, complicated oneâ€”even though weâ€™ve ostensibly passed through messiness and complications, as far as that goes in a low-impact, white, upper-middle-class Manhattanite milieuâ€”but from a simplistic notion that turns out to be equally, if differently, simplistic in the end. Maggie ends up close to where she began, like a figure-8 that winds around and around until the circuit is closed. Itâ€™s the kind of plot that seems self-aware but is really just self-affirming. Itâ€™s clear that Maggieâ€™s plan was ill-conceived from the start, and unfortunately Maggieâ€™s Plan proves ill-conceived through to the end.