One of the hallmarks of Rebecca Miller’s films up until now has been a playful, sometimes willful disregard for storytelling conventions. Her heroines pass through familiar experiences — coming of age, falling in and out of love, pursuing creative ambitions — in unusual ways, generally indifferent to the rules of genre.
At the outset, “Maggie’s Plan,” Ms. Miller’s fifth feature, seems to break this pattern and play by some of those rules, in particular the ones governing romantic comedy. Maggie, for one thing, looks like a recognizable type of modern comic character, a New York millennial with vague aspirations and a job at the margins of the city’s cultural and intellectual life. She is charmingly idiosyncratic. To put it another way: She’s played by Greta Gerwig.
Maggie’s best friends are an amusingly abrasive couple played by former “Saturday Night Live” cast members (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph). She herself is single, and her plan is to have a baby on her own once she finds a suitable sperm donor. She settles on Guy (Travis Fimmel), a dude with a beard and piercing blue eyes who makes artisanal pickles in Brooklyn. (I wonder if Maggie has seen “Crossing Delancey.” I suspect Ms. Miller has.)
As Maggie advances toward maternity — but before she is actually pregnant — a work mix-up conspires to introduce her to John (Ethan Hawke), a part-time professor who asks Maggie to read the first chapter of his novel. That should be a warning — isn’t there some office at City Hall that distributes cautionary pamphlets about guys with novels that supposedly need reading? — but Maggie falls for him anyway. Also, he’s married.
John observes that in every relationship, someone is the gardener and someone is the rose. His domestic life, at least according to what he tells Maggie, is devoted to tending to the whims and neuroses of his wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore), a Columbia professor whose career has eclipsed his own. Pretty soon, a plot takes shape that you might have seen somewhere before. A middle-aged intellectual leaves behind a difficult, accomplished woman his own age for a younger, more pliable, less ego-threatening mate. With Maggie, John has a chance to be the rose, and she is happy to spend her time cultivating and admiring, and eventually looking after a daughter, Lily.
Has Ms. Miller — the astringently feminist writer and director of “Personal Velocity” and “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” — made a late-period Woody Allen movie? Well, no. What she has done is slyly subvert a ubiquitous paradigm. She turns a standard male fantasy inside out. The movie, after all, is not about John’s self-esteem. It’s about Maggie’s plan, which is to say about the comedy of her efforts to manage and anticipate the unruly logic of her own desires and everybody else’s.
Maggie, who wears penny loafers and long skirts and sometimes attends Quaker meetings, uses the word “capable” to describe herself. Other people say “controlling.” When she complains to John about the proliferating demands on her time and patience — by the movie’s midpoint she is taking care of John and Lily and also doing stepmom duty with John and Georgette’s children (Mina Sundwall and Jackson Frazer) — he points out that she is only living with the results of her own choices.
Ms. Miller’s choices are hard to argue with. She steers gracefully through a zigzagging plot, slowing down for quiet, contemplative stretches and pausing for jokes that are irrelevant but irresistible. She finds a tricky balance of farce, satire and emotional sincerity, a way of treating people as ridiculous without denying them empathy. They are all flawed, difficult and easy to laugh at, but the mockery is devoid of contempt, and arises from the simple fact that they all — John and Georgette in particular — take themselves so seriously that we don’t have to.
John’s scholarly specialty is ficto-critical anthropology. Early on, he and Georgette participate in a symposium on Occupy Wall Street (or something) moderated by Wallace Shawn that might as well be documentary. Later, they plan to attend a conference in Quebec, lured partly by the promise that “Zizek will be there, too.”
That is a reference to the Slovenian academic superstar Slavoj Zizek, who has appeared in several movies but (spoiler alert) does not show up in this one. Still, his name is not dropped in vain. In his writing on, for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s films and Jane Austen’s novels, Mr. Zizek has proven to be an acute analyst of the ways that plots reach their destinations through misrecognition and error. People get what they think they want in order to discover what they really want. Control is illusory. Desire is perverse. Outcomes are unpredictable until the moment they are revealed as inevitable.
At times Ms. Miller’s plans can seem a bit too carefully laid. You can occasionally infer the diagram behind the scenes, and also hear the scratching of her pen beneath the voices of the actors. Ms. Moore’s voice, however, proves to be the movie’s secret weapon. Georgette, who is Danish, sounds like a child raised by Greta Garbo and Elmer Fudd who went on to earn an advanced degree from a German university. She is a whirlwind of rage and erudition, and she almost makes everyone else look timid and banal.
Not quite, thank goodness. “Maggie’s Plan” is a modest movie, reluctant, like its heroine, to make large claims or excessive demands. But it is also cleareyed, generous and funny — tart but not sour, sweet but not too sweet, like one of Guy’s pickles.
“Maggie’s Plan” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Discreet sex and intense academic jargon. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes.
A picture caption on Friday with a film review of “Maggie’s Plan” carried a credit that misspelled the photographer’s given name. He is Jon Pack, not John.