In Maggie’s Plan (2015), Rebecca Miller’s (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)) new film, Ethan Hawke plays John, an adjunct teacher at a New York college and “the bad boy of fictocriticism”. For my money, he’s the middle-aged version of Troy, the philosophising musician Hawke played in Reality Bites (1994). He’s still a man-boy, but the angry young man has softened and he’s made some concessions to the establishment.
John still has a few commitment issues though. He’s married to the tenured Georgette, and a woman more driven and career-focussed than he is, but he finds himself attracted to Maggie (Greta Gerwig), a woman from the administrative class – she helps students “bridge art and commerce” – when she agrees to read the novel he’s writing.
Julianne Moore plays the wife Georgette as a neurotic who is as psychologically coiled as the towering hair sculptures she wears night and day. She takes study trips to observe “Icelandic maternal techniques”, and we learn “family dynamics” is one of John’s specialties. Which is hilarious, considering how clueless they both are about their own disintegrating family.
Writer/director Miller lays on the academic stereotypes thickly. And it’s hard to know whether it’s the genuinely affectionate ribbing of a bookish class she knows well, or all an elaborate revenge for the C someone gave her years ago for a paper.
Whatever the motivations, her sketches of academic life, while drawn large, do ring true: Georgette’s absorption in the minutiae of choosing publishers, John dispensing wisdom in the campus cafeteria (avoid the word “like” he tells his students, it’s “a language condom”).
It’s a world where telling someone “no one unpacks commodity fetishism like you do” counts as foreplay. And where an academic panel is really just a thinly disguised and brutal game of more-radical-than-thou one-upmanship. It lampoons mercilessly, but there is bound to be an audience for this movie: after all, this must be the first film (surely the first mainstream movie) where name-checking Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek is a plot device.
So this is satire. But it’s also a screwball comedy with a triangle at its heart - which is why we need the titular Maggie. After John and Maggie’s “meet-cute” in the college pay office, there’s another hurdle to their affair beyond John’s relationship: the single Maggie has enlisted a sperm donor, a man who happens to be an artisan pickle entrepreneur (the imagery is nothing if not heavy handed). She’s even set a self-impregnation date: March 23 (wait, let’s just calculate that… oh! A Christmas present. It might not be a virgin birth, but the conception will turn out to be a mystery).
Of course love – and sex – gets in the way. (It always does.) Maggie and John fall for each other and into bed. John devotes himself to his novel, cannibalising his own life for plot points. Maggie devotes herself to John and their blended family. Georgette, meanwhile, writes an autoethnography about her spurned wife experience, giving overwrought readings in bookstores as fans queue for signed copies.
Scholars, Miller seems to suggest, are not immune to the modern demand to create a narrative from one’s life, and to turn one’s personal life into a commodity. They might, in fact, be experts at it (and whether that’s narcissism, or merely an honest acceptance of the hopeless subjectivity of everything, is a debate best left for the ethnography journals).
John, meanwhile, becomes so lost in his novel’s plot he can’t see another relationship falling apart. Here the film takes a Midsummer Night’s Dream turn, in a development that’s loudly signalled in its first minutes. And while this film might be ground zero of movies that have failed the Bechdel test – I mean, this is a story about two women sharing one guy – it scrapes through on another kind of feminist test: if you count women plotting to sprinkle metaphorical love dust in a hapless man’s eyes as empowering.
But why do these women bother? Maggie is supremely domestically competent (John is like another child), and she can self-impregnate, remember. Georgette’s career eclipses his. If a man isn’t necessary, then why is Miller persisting with the centuries-old marriage plot? You could read the story as an indictment on the female characters. Or you could read it as an indictment on patriarchy.
But Miller wants to ask some more interesting questions about fate and free will. The film suggests the real gods, the real power, can lie elsewhere – in our genes, for example. John and Georgette’s children are testimony to that: manipulative, clever, occasionally truth-telling mini-mes of their parents.
Despite the characters’ furious efforts to narrate and plot their lives, they’re not nearly as in control as they might like to think. Miller, following Freud and friends, suggests we’re defenceless in the face of our childhood-based neuroses and desires, the tensions between our need to parent and be parented, to be separate and together.
And our desire to be authors of our own plot is constantly doing battle with our desire to surrender ourselves to somebody else’s plot. As John says, kneeling at Maggie’s feet: “I can’t help it, I’m in love with you”.
In the end though, as a screwball Maggie’s Plan requires some kind of restoration of domestic order. And just as Georgette tells John that too much theory, his over-intellectualising, has killed his novel’s story, we could take her lead and surrender ourselves to the movie’s plot. And to the perverse pleasure of three people making more of a mess of things than we are. At least, that’s what we hope – as we squirm in our seats, hands covering our eyes, watching the characters through the slits between our fingers.
Maggie’s Plan opens in Australia cinemas on July 7.