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The 'Other Woman' Tries To Fix The Marriage She Destroyed In 'Maggie's Plan'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Writer-director Rebecca Miller's fifth feature film is the comedy "Maggie's Plan," which centers on a young woman who decides her husband belongs with his ex-wife. Greta Gerwig plays the title role, Ethan Hawke the husband, and Julianne Moore the ex. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Rebecca Miller's comedy, "Maggie's Plan," centers on a 30-something woman who attempts to plot out the rest of her life. Maggie is played by Greta Gerwig, and when we meet her, she has just decided to have a child on her own with the help of an acquaintance named Guy, the bushy-bearded proprietor of an artisan pickle company.

How much involvement do you want to have? she asks Guy, and before he can answer, says, I would suggest none.

Maggie works at The New School in New York, and in the midst of her planning, meets an adjunct professor of something called ficto-critical anthropology named John, played by Ethan Hawke. Apparently cowed by his severe Danish wife, a tenured professor at Columbia, John shows his first attempt at a novel to Maggie. She loves it, he falls in love with her and her love of the novel, and then he leaves his wife.

The opening section of "Maggie's Plan" falls under the heading of meh. It's not bad. Maya Rudolph livens it up as Maggie's tart friend, and Travis Fimmel has a good scene as the socially-awkward pickle vendor. But a lot of it is shapeless, and Greta Gerwig is a little too Greta Gerwig-ish. She’s the darling of American indie cinema, and as she clomps around in eyesore overaged schoolgirl outfits, her adorable dithering is like a tic. She's the intellectual’s Goldie Hawn, circa 1967. Is Maggie supposed to be this irritating?

The good news is Gerwig settles down and is much better in the last two thirds of "Maggie's Plan," which is much more fun in general. Maggie is now married to John, who acts more and more like an entitled artist and leaves domestic tasks to her. And Maggie has been further undermined by the publication of an explosively candid memoir by John's ex-wife, Georgette.

Georgette is played by Julianne Moore, and you would be justified in saying her performance is an outrageous caricature, and I would be justified in saying, thank God for that, because she's glorious and kicks the film into a higher comic gear. Moore can be broad but so finely-detailed that single syllables can make you whoop with joy. Ultimately, Maggie comes to Georgette with a vague idea of getting John and her back together.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “MAGGIE’S PLAN”)

GRETA GERWIG: (As Maggie) Well, it's obvious that you're still in love with him.

JULIANNE MOORE: (As Georgette) What the hell are you playing at?

GERWIG: (As Maggie) John and I are in trouble, and I don't think he realizes how much trouble we're in or he doesn't want to know. And then when I saw you at the reading, I realized that there might be an opportunity, an opening, to somehow get the two of you back together.

MOORE: (As Georgette) Oh, I see. I see. So you are – you are tired of your little affair? You're along with it. And now you want to make sure you don't feel guilty so you're going to manipulate us all into some absurd happy ending. I have met a lot of control freaks in my life. In fact, I – I thought I was one, but you – you make me look an amateur.

GERWIG: (As Maggie) I didn't mean to insult you.

MOORE: (As Georgette) Have the decency to leave him and face the fact that you poisoned my life and my children's life and probably John's life, with your own selfishness. That's your burden. You earned it.

GERWIG: (As Maggie) Wait a minute. If you had such a perfect marriage, why was John miserable? You neglected him and you used him, and you didn't believe in his talents.

MOORE: (As Georgette) If I am so awful, why are you trying to get me back together with him?

GERWIG: (As Maggie) Because I think that actually, even though I do think you are pretty self-absorbed and extremely needy, that he needs it. It keeps him in balance. It's thinking about you that stops him from only thinking about himself.

MOORE: (As Georgette) Leave, leave.

EDELSTEIN: To get a handle on "Maggie's Plan," it helps to know some history. It's based on an unpublished story by Karen Rinaldi, a distinguished book editor who, like Maggie, was the other woman in an affair chronicled in Catherine Texier's explosive 1999 memoir, "Breakup: The End Of A Love Story." The movie doesn't feel like Rinaldi's revenge, though, since Georgette and Maggie become uneasy allies and Moore cuts so funny and vulnerable a figure. At heart, this is that other woman's fantasy of restoring an order she upended. Its main flaw is that the male object of the women's affections is somewhat under-characterized, though Ethan Hawke is such a generous actor that John's essential good will comes through.

The movie doesn’t quite come together, but it has a solid emotional core, and it's very enjoyable. Rebecca Miller is the daughter of Arthur Miller, which I mention because a lot of her work features famous moralist fathers who show childish irresponsibility towards their families. The richest idea in "Maggie's Plan" is that a woman who's so taxed by a demanding mate that she comes to feel increasingly undefined can create an ingenious scenario for freeing herself. You watch Maggie work and think, OK, it's a plan.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Coming up, we remember CBS correspondent Morley Safer, who died yesterday. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.