Maggie’s Plan

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***

How do you solve a problem like Greta Gerwig? In almost every film she’s in, she begins by derailing your artistic sensibilities by drawing attention to the artifice of the activity you’re engaged in: you’re watching a movie, and she is an actress, standing in front of a camera, speaking lines that someone has written for the movie you’re watching. The dialogue sounds like dialogue, not like real life.

Then you realize that, while the actors around her may not seem as constructed as Miss Gerwig, they’re not as funny, either. She may seem like a vehicle of the writer, but she also seems like the perfect vehicle of the writer. She is hitting every beat, getting every intended joke, inflection, intended line reading. She is the writer’s advocate.

Finally, by the end, you’ve fallen in love with her all over again. This is Gerwig’s crazy, strange, unique skill: she challenges you to like her at the beginning of each film she’s in, and by the end you would do anything for her. She seduces you in every role, over and over, and she always wins.

It’s lucky writer / director Rebecca Miller got Gerwig to centrally ground her film Maggie’s Plan, then, because without her it would lie charmless and flat. As a script – and, especially, as a piece of direction – it’s a copy of a copy of a copy of Woody Allen – a fourth generation Xerox. Extremely erudite, educated, very white New Yorkers navigate love while talking about each others’ writing. Ethan Hawke is the man; Julianne Moore is the other woman. “Maggie’s Plan” is the hinge the plot swings on, and, while slender, it has enough bolts to warrant not revealing it. (The trailer is not so respectful – avoid it if you don’t want most elements of Maggie’s plan revealed).

This is a movie of quiet smiles and the occasional laugh; it’s barely a comedy, and yet it’s only a comedy; the stakes, while genuine for the characters, are superficial for the audience, and hardly worthy of the lofty title of drama. Gerwig saves the day, the movie, and justifies your visit to the cinema. She works in a rarefied world of highly literate, literary, urban, independent cinema. Hollywood probably doesn’t want her and she probably doesn’t want Hollywood. Thank goodness. It means she makes movies like Maggie’s Plan, which is otherwise unremarkable, watchable. I guess there is no problem like Great Gerwig, or if there is, she solves it herself, one erudite, literate movie at a time.

Still Alice

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*** (out of five)

Julianne Moore is nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress for Still Alice, from screenwriting and directing partners Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. She plays Alice Howland, an extremely intelligent, beautiful and successful linguistics professor, who, upon turning 50, becomes afflicted with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The film is tasteful, controlled, quiet, almost stately; it’s beautifully shot in New York mainly in autumn and winter, features precise characters and perfect performances, particularly from Moore, who should and will get the Oscar. It is also a slog, hampered by two script-level fundamental flaws.

The first is that, playing its schematic early, the film becomes a sort of inevitable death march. Once Alice’s disease is discovered, we anticipate – not with pleasure – that the rest of the running time will essentially be a series of worse and worse symptoms on display, and that is precisely what we get. Although Moore performs each stage of Alice’s degradation exquisitely, it is not only an extremely depressing ride but a predictable one.

The other challenge is the film’s almost high-concept conceit: having Moore as a world authority on linguistics, and the disease gradually robbing her of words, is simply very, very contrived, and the concept is hammered to death. It’s too neat and it becomes grating.

Alice’s family are beautiful, smart and wonderful like her, and if they weren’t played by such excellent actors they would be insufferable. But Alec Baldwin, Kristin Stewart, Hunter Parrish (what a great actor’s name!) and particularly Kate Bosworth bring them all to life with precision. The Howlands are of a particular New York academic upper class, and they’ve got rigid spines, stiff upper lips and emotional resilience. This, at least, stops the movie from being mawkish – there are no scenes of anyone losing it, screaming, weeping uncontrollably or generally getting all tragic with it. But there is no denying that the film is depressing from the outset and never lightens up. While a fine showcase of a great screen actor’s talents, and an admirable depiction of an all-too-common disease, it is a grind, and one wonders if the filmmakers had an audience in mind.