‘Maggie’s Plan’
Director:
Rebecca Miller
Stars: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Maggie’s Plan” finds a serious filmmaker trying comedy, and it shows. Rebecca Miller (“Personal Velocity”) isn’t shy about borrowing styles and actors from others. From Noah Baumbach she takes a smarty pants milieu and Greta Gerwig; from Richard Linklater she nicks Ethan Hawke and long takes of people falling in love as they chat. It’s a New York romp set amongst intellectuals, so it has inevitable chunks of Woody Allen, too. The result is somewhere between derivative and unique, a hodgepodge that mixes and matches inspirations while filtering it through Miller’s sensibility. The result is a film that’s off-beat in more ways than one, but not in a bad way.

RELATED: Interview: Ethan Hawke and Rebecca Miller on "Maggie's Plan" and women filmmakers

It’s also a lot snakier than its sources. The title plan, hatched by Gerwig’s single, inevitably mumble-mouthed New School administrator Maggie, first seems to concern getting pregnant by insemination. Then she meets John (Ethan Hawke, giggly and nervous). He’s an academic specializing in “ficto-critical anthropology” (a real thing), married with kids to a colleague (Julianne Moore). The two hit it off, then pair off, and suddenly we’ve jumped a few years when they’ve married and had a kid. But for John, love fades again, and Maggie, who never chilled to the idea of being a homewrecker, wonders if she can set things right again with a cunning plan right out of “The Parent Trap.”

“Maggie’s Plan” is a farce, but buried just underneath its hairpin turns and light indie rom-com vibe is a perceptive look at life lived now. It’s casually, if not ostentatiously, progressive, meaning it’s cool with divorce, kids schlepped between parents and — perhaps most radical of all — the idea that people do fall in and out of love, sometimes with the same person. Miller is empathetic with everyone and no one’s ever a villain, though each one gets a chance — several of them — to act foolishly, recklessly and selfishly. The characters are allowed to change their minds, to become jerks for a bit before snapping back. Personality, as in life, is fluid.

RELATED: Interview: Russell Crowe talks "The Nice Guys" and stealing Ryan Gosling's jacket

Miller’s not always comfortable with comedy, and she can’t write snappy one-liners. She can write amusingly flowery dialogue. People say things like “I have to get back to my dysfunction” — its own version of a fizzy one-liner. Instead of harming the film this makes it more interesting, even weird. There’s an uneasy tone, one where academics and even organic farmers can be funny, but not because they’re academics or organic farmers. In any other comedy name-dropping Slavoj Zizek or a line like “I just heard that Whole Foods is going to carry my pickles nationally” would be devastating satire. In “Maggie’s Plan,” they’re sincere, and the comedy comes from other, unusual places. Write it off as a knockoff and you’ll miss out on what a strange beast this is.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge