Written by Selma Thompson
Released only days apart, Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan and Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship each explore similar dilemmas: In each film, a woman of intelligence, in a rarified social orbit, defies convention to plot her domestic happiness. A viewer wandering from one screen to the next at the multiplex could construct a DYI comedy double-feature that provokes laughs while raising questions. Viewed in tandem, the films invite debate over the limits of female agency, and even, perhaps, the limits of indie films in 2016. What do these female protagonists deserve? What should they settle for? Why are we seeing these movies, now?
Greta Gerwig brings her flustered charm to the character of Maggie, a 30-something trapped in the downtown New York life of cramped apartments and weird jobs, whose ticking biological clock tempts her to quit looking for love and instead plan to find a sperm donor. In another century, on another continent, Kate Beckinsale, as the wryly self-aware Lady Susan, will not go quietly into penniless young widowhood, despite the aristocratic assumptions of 1790s England, confident she possesses beauty and brains to plot her way to personal satisfaction and financial security.
In Miller’s contemporary tale of female rebellion, Maggie procures the needed sperm from Guy, an old college acquaintance. His generic name suggests a commitment-free transaction, but Guy (Travis Fimmel), a lumbersexual artisanal pickle-maker, has a goofy charm, and his time onscreen is all too brief. Thoroughly-modern-Maggie carries out her plan despite the warnings of ex-boyfriend, Tony (Bill Hader), who remains her closest pal despite his happy marriage and child with Felicia (Maya Rudolph). Tony and Felicia–a hilarious Greek chorus–offer advice and warnings throughout the story which Maggie, of course, ignores.
Maggie’s plan is complicated one day at The New School, where she coaches student entrepreneurs on how to pitch absurd, politically correct products to potential investors. In a hardly romantic first encounter, she bumps into John (Ethan Hawke), haggling with HR over his paltry adjunct paycheck. This leads to John and Maggie sitting in Washington Square Park, where good-listener Maggie hears about John’s novelist dreams and his frustrations as a mostly stay at home dad, unappreciated by his more successful wife, a tenured professor of something called Crypto-Fictive Anthropology at Columbia. Soon Maggie is reading hundreds of pages of John’s novel in progress, and soon after, he is on his knees professing his love; and despite teaching at The New School, Maggie appears unaware of feminist critiques of the “Woman as Muse” stereotype. Years pass, and we find Maggie has the cute baby she wanted, plus a marriage to John which exhausts her, as Maggie now takes care of this slacker…and the kids he ignores from his first marriage. Maggie suddenly revises her plan. Can she please keep her baby, but return John and those kids to his ex-wife?
Julianne Moore, fresh from her Academy Award winning role as a Columbia professor in the tragic Still Alice re-visits that profession, this time with a bitingly satiric spin on the role. Her Georgette is an arrogant Danish ice-princess spewing academic jargon. Moore, who played a supporting role in Miller’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, reunites with the director to steal the movie as Maggie and Georgette, wife and ex-wife, transition from enemies to frenemies with a mutually beneficial hidden agenda that will play out at John’s “expense.”
Maggie’s Plan is a departure for Miller—her first comedy, and her first screenplay partly based on someone else’s material—an unfinished novel by Karen Rinaldi. This may account for the uneven tone of the film. Despite the canny casting of Greta Gerwig, whose mere presence lends the movie largely unearned sense of Millennial credibility, Maggie’s Plan feels more confused than subversive; more retro than modern. The topic of artificial insemination, after all, was explored half a decade ago in not one, but three 2010 films: The Switch; The Back-up Plan; and the previous Julianne Moore vehicle, The Kids Are Alright.
Maggie’s Plan’s self-conscious attempt at screwball comedy recalls an I Love Lucy episode, but Lucy and Ethel were ‘50s housewives with their own thwarted dreams, hatching funny schemes as courageous acts of desperation in postwar, conservative America. Why a 2016 movie needs Maggie and Georgette to “plot” to get John back with his first wife is a head-scratcher. And why Georgette, a published and tenured professor (and gorgeous, because she’s played by Julianne Moore!) would even want the ex who left her for a younger woman is equally puzzling. If the film didn’t require this second act contrivance, Maggie could just get a divorce like any well-educated, self-actualized woman juggling a successful career and motherhood; and Georgette would be free to then woo back her former husband, if she so chooses. The second half of the movie serves as a clumsy distraction from the inevitable complications of any romantic comedy involving a sperm donor. This is not a new topic—it’s a new genre. If you saw any of the earlier movies on this subject, you can guess the ending of this one.
Hidden agendas and female scheming are also key to Love & Friendship, but it is this period piece set in 1790 which offers a modern celebration of female intelligence. Lady Susan runs to the estate of in-laws to escape rumors of her inappropriate behavior, aware that gossip and envy follow any young, beautiful widow out in society. Lacking funds to be anything but a houseguest at the mercy of others’ hospitality, Lady Susan contrives a plan to get herself a rich new husband, and with that a home of her own…and marry off her headstrong daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to a good family. Her survival strategy requires artfully juggling the attentions of attractive young Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel); affably ridiculous, and ridiculously wealthy, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett); and “divinely handsome”, but married, Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain ).
Fortunately, Lady Susan has a true friend and ally in Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), an American wed to staid Mr. Johnson (played with delicious British reserve by Stephen Fry). One laugh-out-loud moment occurs when Lady Susan and Alecia commiserate over how Mr. Johnson is a husband neither old enough to make Alecia a widow, nor young enough to be governed as his ward. The film reunites Beckinsale and Sevigny with Stillman, who also cast them in The Last Days of Disco. Stillman plays them off each other brilliantly, the dialogue all the funnier for its elegantly complex phrasing and rapid delivery as they spin their webs.
Like Maggie’s Plan, Love & Friendship is based on an unfinished work, Jane Austen’s, Lady Susan. Those who recall the social-climbing preppies debating Mansfield Park in Stillman’s debut film Metropolitan will rejoice that he has finally given us an Austen movie of his own. Lady Susan is that rare Austen character unfamiliar to most viewers, and Beckinsale’s interpretation is totally her own, and happens to be completely riveting. Is she a mother setting up Reginald DeCourcey to wed her daughter, or a stalking cougar? Will Sir Martin be used by these wily females or is a happier ending possible for this holy fool? What part might the married Lord Manwaring play in any of this? Austen via Whitman invites us to revel in the wit of these female characters, and the power of that intelligence, as we ponder possible outcomes.
What a thought-provoking double bill these two movies would make. Perhaps the problems with Maggie’s Plan unintentionally offers some good news about the state of modern womanhood, both on and off screens. New York women don’t need a “plan” to trick men into loving them, nor to have children. Artificial insemination isn’t some strange unknown, but simply an option for many. Maggie’s Plan rings false for all the right reasons. We have come a long way from the world of Jane Austen’s Love & Friendship, which invites us to celebrate the brilliance (and sense of humor?) it once took for a woman who was the smartest person in the room to simultaneously conceal that fact, and to triumph.
With theatrical releases increasingly featuring tent-pole franchises, it is understandable that a modest effort like Maggie’s Plan would attempt to market its “bold” premise, but the reality is that the film’s exploration of its subject is tepid. There are pleasures to be found, most especially in Julianne Moore’s performance, but these can be happily enjoyed watching the movie on your phone once it finds its way to Netflix or Amazon or Hulu. There’s not a shot that needs to be seen on a big screen, and your viewing enjoyment might be enhanced if you could hit pause to make a sandwich. Perhaps streaming is the future for projects like this.
True cinematic boldness is abundant in Love & Friendship; the characters are unapologetically conniving, the laughs are loud and often, and the satire is unflinching. The small, unexpected moments of humility and grace, like The Young Curate’s (Conor MacNeill) extemporaneous musings on the beauty of life, are startling, and all the more affecting because of it. The audacity of Love & Friendship, coupled with the strategic use of Irish countryside locations, and Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s low-budget but clever period costumes, have produced a cinematic event worth seeking out…a movie for a big screen in a room rolling with laughter. Perhaps that is why Love & Friendship, which is packing U.K. theatres, is the first Whit Stillman release to crack the top ten in any country.
Selma Thompson: A Lifetime Member of The Writers Guild of America, East, she has written scripts for television, cable and studios. Her work has won a Cine Golden Eagle and been nominated for a Prism Award. She is also a script consultant, and teaches screenwriting and script analysis at NYU, where she was awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award. Educated at Princeton University and The University of London, she holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Tisch School of the Arts/NYU