‘Maggie’s Plan’: Where Academia and Romantic Comedy Meet


Personal Velocity director Rebecca Miller’s new film, Maggie‘s Plan, is set within the world of Columbia-and-New-School-professing “ficto-critical anthropologists,” which certainly provides a very specific setting. Ultimately, though, it has the same kind of moral we’ve already seen in many, many romantic comedies: a control freak attempts to be the decider of fate, and finds out that their autonomous control is no match for chaos, coincidence, and even external determiners (an objective higher power?). Knowing only the film’s name and genre, you can surmise that its internal message is probably “Love cannot always work according to the plan, Maggie!” (and you’d be right.) Still, by setting itself within the milieu of academia, the film relishes being a traditional rom-com that also gets to theoretically hint at the overarching themes of so many other coms that rom.

Apart from informing the self-involvedly/self-loathingly bourgeois language of many mid-career Woody Allen comedies, academia has been the setting of various other bourgeois romantic films (Allen’s recent Irrational Man, Admission, Liberal Arts.) Providing a highbrow setting is often an elitist way to make films that belong to the oft-derided rom-com genre appeal to people who want to avoid admitting to liking films that belong to said genre. At times, this seems to be exactly what Maggie’s Plan is doing — slipping a cute self-deprecating Paris Review copy and NPR mug into the hands of protagonists caught in a plot or “plan” that resembles the low brow formulaic gimmickry of the bygone rom-com. It’s reliably predictable, part of a genre visited when you want reassurance that, whatever hijinks ensue throughout the plot, you won’t be left devastated, or even that surprised. In other words, you go into a rom-com feeling that there’s a very set plan — one that’s notably similar to the efficient ways the central Maggie tries to manipulate people’s lives into fitting together in a perfect, comfortable formula.

If you feel like, between Irrational Man and every other Woody Allen film, you’ve seen a glut of films in which the disheveled and neurotically self-absorbed male intellectual is written to be a magnetic figure, Maggie’s Plan certainly deconstructs that notion with a feminist bent, with Ethan Hawke’s dreamy writer character’s narcissism proving to be less endearing than unsustainable, thus necessitating the titular plan. The film revolves around Greta Gerwig’s art counselor character, who, as her job and the film’s title indicate, has a bit of a tendency to get caught up in plotting out other people’s lives. As for her own, she’s trying to have a kid and is caught up artificially inseminating herself when the aforementioned hot older married academic character professes his love for her — quickly changing her path from self-parenting to supporting him, and their new daughter, while he finishes his novel.

And, of course, in the background there’s the notion of the wife he left (Georgette, played with a comical pan-European accent and beautiful pairing of warmth and intimidation by Julianne Moore), who morphs from myth to human when Maggie attends her book signing. (It’s an anthropological text about Geishas somehow inspired by the deterioration of the marriage.) As Maggie begins to become disenchanted by her mooching novelist partner, she conceives an absurd plan in an attempt not to waste all of the love she senses still exists between him and his ex-wife: she’ll collaborate with Georgette to lure him into ricocheting from Maggie back to Georgette so the messes of their relationships are happily and neatly tied together.

Peppered with jokes about Žižek (predicated seemingly on how name-recognition will get back-patting laughs from audiences), commodity fetishism (Moore’s emphatic line “No one unpacks commodity fetishism like you do” is among the most direct professions of love in the film, and is certainly the funniest), and references to Shakespeare’s fatalistic love plots, the film at its worst feels like fluff for people who want to feel justified in watching fluff with the notion that they’re liberal arts educated. And structurally speaking, it pretty much is fluff, at least in terms of the easy satisfaction it brings via a predictable and utterly standard rom-com plot.

But perhaps Maggie‘s Plan is having its cake and eating it too: academia is both a convenient backdrop to make snobs feel okay about indulging in a rom-com and actually implemented here in its own somewhat multilayered homage-y reconstruction of the rom-com. This is particularly apparent in the film’s continual half-jocular, half-thematically-important recurring discussion of “ficto-critical anthropology” — the field in which Ethan Hawke’s character has made his name, a somewhat radical and thus both ballyhooed and disdained form in of academic writing. (Of which I was, full disclosure, not aware prior to Maggie’s Plan — thanks Maggie’s Plan!)

Ficto-critical anthropology, per what I’ve learned, sees the invasion of fictional styles into the pseudo-sanctity of the field-researched branch of academia. It’s been polarizing in that it both seemingly works to purport a higher truth by undermining the observational truth-seeking purpose of ethnography and interrogating notions that such a thing could have ever existed in the first place. Its besmirching of criticism with fiction mirrors the film’s own imposition of formula onto the type of film we expect to be more “truthful.”

Michael Taussig (My Cocaine Museum), one of the major proponents of the form of writing, described it in the Brooklyn Rail:

As regards ethnography, telling stories with a ficto-critical sensibility implies performance in the writing; the rhythm and speed, the tone of voice, the position or maybe even changes in the position of the writer as a voice. Also the mischief-making tongue-in-cheek conspiration with the reader, the text as a movie, the text as a magic spell, and so forth can be involved. William Burroughs does it so well… It’s a beguiling term—“ficto-criticism”—because so much value is placed on not allowing fiction to intrude into serious research…

The pervasion of the term “ficto-criticism” throughout the film to an extent parallels what Maggie is attempting to do with her life, and what the film is trying to do with romantic comedy. Maggie exerts her desire to control the narratives of others’ lives through the implementation of a logic of fictions: her friend says she’s akin to Titania — the meddlesome Midsummer Night’s Dream fairy who catalyzes the whole mischievous romantic plot. As such, she imposes a romantic-comedy logic onto a film that otherwise tonally feels like a more observationally naturalistic indie. The film seems a pleasantly loose and “authentic” character study that’s constantly and self-reflexively being interrupted by romantic comedy genre formulas via Maggie’s somewhat meta “plan.” The fact that Hawke’s character is also trying to change his own career by toiling over a work of pure fiction for the first time further runs parallel to the film’s toying with naturalism giving way to formula.

Sure, it’s quite often that in romantic comedies, a central character is manipulating (or clumsily facilitating) something as loose and unruly as love into a formulaic plan that plays out to vague audience fulfillment over the course of 90-or-so minutes. In Maggie’s Plan, however, the character takes her life within a preexisting form — the subtle, dry, bourgeois and plot/gimmick averse indie comedy — and imposes plots and gimmicks onto it in a gesture that runs parallel to the (hey, actually not made up!) aforementioned anthropological authorial practice. Sure, it’s a highfalutin joke that both takes academia down a peg and elevates the rom-com a peg — leaving the audience to feel just humble enough in their snobbery to relax into a rom-com. But it also speaks to and deepens the character’s tendency to manipulate the chaotic world into a fiction that sounds like a forced, formulaic story. It doesn’t make the film totally solid, but it substantiates for and mines the reasons why it sacrifices realism for storybook structure, and makes a self-reflexive statement about academia as a vessel through which people who don’t want to admit to enjoying a rom-com can enjoy a rom-com.