A good ingénue role is stuffed with smarts, as Gracie Allen, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball and other comic greats all understood. Greta Gerwig, an accomplished filmmaker and actress who's been pinned (Damsels in Distress, Frances Ha Ha, and others) as the go-to ingénue of American independent film, gets that, too. On the whole, she's made hay with the knowledge, even when the purported ditz isn't drawn distinctly enough to give room for expansion.
In Maggie's Plan, a sweet-tempered if rambling romantic comedy by Rebecca Miller from a story by Karen Rinaldi, Gerwig demonstrates again that playing innocent doesn't mean playing stupid. She plays Maggie Hardin, an earnest young New York singleton in pinafore frocks and sensible tights, who longs for a child and an authentic life, whatever that is. Maggie's a practical sort, so with nothing doing on the love front, she commandeers the presumably robust sperm of Guy (Travis Fimmel), a Viking-like former college mate — and grade-A innocent in his own right — who's starting out in the pickle business.
At that very moment, Maggie meets and falls for a college professor named John Harding (serendipity!), played in wire rims and sticky-up hair by Ethan Hawke. That John is already married, if none too happily, to a hotshot Columbia academic from Denmark (Julianne Moore, in a wavering German accent) presents little obstacle. Maggie persuades herself that John's discontent gives her the green light to shack up with him. The pickle purveyor is shunted to the wings, and we cut without ceremony to a couple of years later, when Maggie and John's troubles really begin.
Slushy streets aside (this is a deglamorized Manhattan to be struggled with) what follows is early Woody Allen. Nobody knows what they're doing, and everyone's chasing blind instinct. In the name of honesty and following the heart and all that stuff, damage is done; partners are switched. The madness is noted with wry disbelief by the in-house Greek-chorus couple, Maggie's best friends (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph). Miller has a more forgiving heart than Allen, and the payoff is less about the wages of sin than it is about the lethal potential of a control freak armed with good intentions based on faulty assumptions.
At its best, Maggie's Plan shows genuine wit as a comedy of manners set among the peculiarly ill-defined "professions" that grow like moss between the cracks of the new economy, for want of a better term. John calls himself a "fictio-critical anthropologist," which means he can't decide whether he's a novelist or a social scientist, while his breakfast-nook chat with the first missus features a lot of straight-faced references to commodity fetishism. The pickle guy sells on the street, and Hader mostly wheels a stroller around town. As for Maggie, ever the would-be reconciler, she's trying to make a living by "bridging art and commerce," which means trying to sell the strange educational toys of kooky inventors.
Still, for someone who's cast as the vital connective tissue in this shifting ménage, Maggie comes off as intelligent but a bit nerveless. Gerwig's blend of smart and clueless is always charming and astute, but as a lover tells Maggie with unfortunate accuracy, "You're such a hall monitor." Of such undersexed stuff romantic comedy is rarely made, and though Miller is a bit lighter on her feet here than in some of her other movies, Maggie's Plan doesn't clip along smartly enough for screwball. In the end, there just isn't enough chemistry to go round — until the return of Mr. Pickle, and even he's too little, too late.