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‘Maggie’s Plan’ review: Greta Gerwig works dependably gangly charm

Ethan Hawke and Greta Gerwig in

Ethan Hawke and Greta Gerwig in "Maggie's Plan." Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

PLOT A single woman decides to have a baby, then falls for a married man.

CAST Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore

RATED R (sexuality and adult themes)

LENGTH 1:38

BOTTOM LINE Light and charming, like Woody Allen in one of his better moods.

The messiness of normal life can be a hard thing to describe in the movies. Most of the time, the movie itself ends up feeling messy — uncertain and unsatisfying. Every now and then, though, a movie like “Maggie’s Plan” comes along and manages to capture an elusive magic.

Greta Gerwig works her dependably gangly charm as Maggie, a single woman who decides to have a baby. Maggie, who works at the New School helping design students find work, has chosen Guy (Travis Fimmel), an artisanal pickle maker, for her sperm donor. And if those jobs don’t sound New Yorky enough, check out Maggie’s colleague John, a “ficto-critical anthropologist” played by Ethan Hawke, whose wife, Georgette, is a brittle Danish academic played to perfection by Julianne Moore.

As often happens to artificially inseminated women in the movies (“The Switch,” “The Backup Plan”), Greta soon falls in love. That would be enough to carry any other rom-com to its obvious happy ending, but writer-director Rebecca Miller (the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller) throws in a few twists — some realistic, some amusingly absurd. Here is where “Maggie’s Plan” (based on an unpublished novel by Karen Rinaldi) goes from sparkling comedy to wry commentary on the beds we make for ourselves and our struggle to stop lying in them.

For starters, Maggie falls for John. And after they marry, she finds herself cast in the not-so-romantic roles of homewrecker (Georgette writes a scathing memoir about her), stepmother of two resentful kids and — surprise! — the kind of nagging wife that husbands so often leave. (All this while raising her biological daughter, Lily, played by a very cute Ida Rohatyn.) So Maggie hatches another plan: What if she could simply give John back to Georgette?

What follows is something between Shakespeare, Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach, a cautionary tale filled with Manhattanite wit and small moments that have the ring of truth. It’s a tonal switch from Miller’s splintered drama “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” (2009), but both films share a zigzagging narrative that rarely goes where expected. From start to finish, “Maggie’s Plan” works beautifully.

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