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Greta Gerwig delights in screwball comedy ‘Maggie’s Plan’

Greta Gerwig and Ethan Hawke star in “Maggie’s Plan.”
Greta Gerwig and Ethan Hawke star in “Maggie’s Plan.” Hall Monitor Inc.

Columbia University should give Julianne Moore tenure. In “Still Alice,” Moore was a linguistics professor on the upper-Manhattan campus. Now, in Rebecca Miller’s wily screwball romance “Maggie’s Plan,” the actress, deploying a frighteningly droll Danish accent, is a Columbia anthropologist with her name, Georgette Harding, on the department door.

By comparison, her husband, John, played with a scruffy charm by Ethan Hawke, is a lowly adjunct at NYU. His specialty is fictocritical anthropology, he is the author of the hefty “Rituals of Commodity Fetishism,” and he is about to embark on an affair with a single woman with two master’s degrees and a closet of decidedly unfashionable togs. Penny loafers. Cardigans. Blouses buttoned to the neck.

She is the Maggie of the title, and she is played by Greta Gerwig in the Gerwigian manner people have come to love — or have come to be annoyed by, depending on your view of the daffy up-from-mumblecore star.

Maggie and John’s relationship begins innocently, with walk-and-talks through Washington Square, but soon he is sharing pages of the novel he is writing, and sharing his frustrations about living with Georgette. One night, John comes running to Maggie’s little apartment, slumps to his knees, and announces, “I’m in love with you.”

It was not Maggie’s plan to fall in love — she had a different agenda, having recruited an artisanal pickle maker in Brooklyn to donate his sperm so she can have a child. The motherhood thing and the John Harding thing dovetail, though, and soon John has left Georgette.

The plan of the title comes midway through Miller’s disarmingly shambling comedy. John and Maggie have settled into a life together, but he seems to be taking her for granted. Maggie complains to her friend (Maya Rudolph) who listens and then responds: “Too bad you can’t give him back to his ex-wife.”

A light bulb goes on over Maggie’s head, and soon she is meeting with the frosty Dane. Wary and watchful, Georgette takes her time warming to the idea, but she does — and the plot thickens.

Moore goes at the Scandinavian-intellectual thing with hilarious results — she’s tightly wound (with a tight bun of a ’do) and just this side of camp. Hawke is convincing as the bright but self-absorbed writer/philosopher. At the center of things, Gerwig stands her ground, making observations that are smart and soul-baring and true.

“Maggie’s Plan” has some of the spirit, fabric and milieu of Woody Allen’s earlier comedies. But Miller understands women in a way Allen probably never will, and she also understands how to move characters along without relying on shtick.

There are some great punch lines in “Maggie’s Plan,” though. Fictocritical and funny.

Movie review

‘Maggie’s Plan’

Rated R for language and brief sexuality. 1:38. Kentucky.

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