Doing screwball comedy isn’t easy. The timing has got to not only be perfect, but the joke itself has got to match the precise moment it is being delivered. Not just that, but the delivery has got to match the tone and precision the joke is being delivered at. Got that? Oh and then there’s the plot, which needs to have a real punch to it, because, essentially, the plot itself should not be taken totally seriously. It’s an almost explainable phenomenon to make great screwball, an almost non-existent genre ever since the heydeys of such 1930′ classics as His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby. Recently there’s bee a sort of rejuvenation of the genre. Noah Baumbach has tried to take a crack at it with his last few films ditto Whit Stillman.
Rebecca Miller is the latest to attempt a film the screwball manner. Her delectably screwy and messy Maggie’s Plan has the familiar elements: a complicated relationship, a strong female role, a man’s masculinity being questioned, and a fast-paced repartee. Maggie,as played by Baumbach millennial screwball actress Greta Gerwig, plans to have a baby on her own, but her plan is soon screwball-ed when she falls in love with the very married John, as played her by Ethan Hawke, which coincides in the destruction of his marriage with Georgette, an incredibly playful and wacky Julianne Moore.
That’s the setup, but things get more complicated from there as the film goes forward three years later when Maggie becomes out of love with John and decides to reunite him with his ex-wife. The fact that the ex-wife is Georgette, an odd, quirky, literate and humorously high-brow woman, is the punch line. That’s fine with me, especially when she is being played Julianne Moore in a performance filled with perfect timing and comically witty verbiage that she steals the film from her co-stars. Whenever Georgette appears on-screen is when the film hits its high points. Moore is such a presence that, the usually reliable Gerwig seems more wooden in comparison, ditto Hawke. That is a problem, especially since these are supposed to be your two leads. Moore’s Georgette is a supporting role, which is a problem when you want more of her on the screen and less of the former.
Miller, a talented filmmaker whose previous films veered more on the dramatic side, tries to juggle so much plot and to make her film as unpredictable as possible that she ends up making a mess out of the whole thing. Her clear inspiration here is Woody Allen and the 1930’s screwball comedies that inspired his own films, but she fails to capture the effortlessness of those films. My advice is to wait and catch Allen’s much more realized and captivating Cafe Society when it hits theaters in July.