The movie is built around Maggie’s biological clock. She wants a baby but her relationships never last more than six months.

Directed by Rebecca Miller
Written by Rebecca Miller, based on a story by Karen Rinaldi
Rated M, 99 minutes

Building a movie on the old truism that men react and women plan might seem a flimsy idea, but Rebecca Miller doesn’t do flimsy. I don’t know who she made a deal with earlier in her career but I think he may have had horns. She continues to write and direct smart, funny, surprising movies at a time when those are not quite wanted at major studios. She attracts superb actors, probably because the roles are always meaty, even the small ones.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee had Robin Wright going quietly mad in a marriage to Alan Arkin. The support included Keanu and Winona (no surnames needed) and Blake (Lively, of course). Julianne Moore played a gay photographer who made fetish pictures for the smut market, in a flashback to the 1960’s. She’s back in the delightful Maggie’s Plan as Georgette, a seemingly neurotic Swedish academic married to up-and-coming writer John Harding (Ethan Hawke).

We don’t meet Georgette until later, but we hear about her. Maggie (Greta Gerwig) has met Harding by chance in the admin office of the faculty in which they both teach at NYU. She mentions him over lunch with her close friend Felicia (Maya Rudolph), who says he’s ‘one of the bad boys of crypto-fictive anthropology’, although his wife Georgette is supposed to be a real monster.  I’m not sure if that form of study exists, but it shows the quality of Miller‘s humour that she can imagine it has ‘bad boys’.

The movie is built around Maggie’s biological clock. She wants a baby but her relationships never last more than six months. There’s an hilarious scene where she’s trying to inseminate herself with donated sperm when John arrives at her apartment to declare that he’s in love with her and can no longer bear life with Georgette.

Two years later, Maggie and John have a daughter, a fashionable if shabby loft, and he is hard at work on the novel he has been brewing for some years. So hard at work in fact that Maggie ends up often picking up his two kids from school and doing all the things that keep a household together.

It might be relevant to mention here that Rebecca Miller’s father was Arthur Miller. We can assume she knows a little about writers’ needs.  She certainly knows a lot about men, women and the paths of true love when faced with dirty nappies, washing up and the disgusting habits we all try to keep secret from our loved ones, at least until they can’t get away. 

Miller’s strong suit is her fearless sense of comedy – fearless in the sense of seeing her characters in their full human glory, warts and all. Ethan Hawke’s John is drop-dead sexy and charming at first, but the narcissism drives him like a V8 engine. At the same time, we can see he is serious about wanting to be a writer, so there is dimension to his self-centredness.

Greta Gerwig’s character, by contrast, is all generosity and gangly, geeky integrity. Her dowdy clothes are endearing: no-one who dresses like that could have too much self-regard. I was thinking Mormon parents until she talked about a Quaker childhood. Gerwig is a great ally in Miller’s pursuit of adult comedy. In her films with Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, Frances Ha, Mistress America) she has shown an uncanny openness to the camera. Her mobile features are purpose-built for mirth. We read every thought as it crosses her innocent face. She seems to be reviving the art of the double-take single-handedly, like a 1930’s black and white screwball comedienne who has stumbled into our colour world.

The screwball element pertains also to the plan of the title. It concerns the machinations of these two women about what to do about John, and it has a deliciously nasty tinge, based on acute observations of what narcissism does to some men. Rebecca Miller’s direction becomes more confident with each film. The balance here between humanity, comedy and satire is particularly strong.  It’s a pity she takes five years between each film, but that is perhaps not of her choosing. Her films are worth the wait.