Movies often simplify the complex issues of life from birth to death, professional to personal, beginnings to endings. No matter how realistic a movie may be, even the most artificial can make us think, wonder, question and resolve. Our time at the movies can become some of the most meaningful minutes of our days.

On the surface, the new film Maggie’s Plan could look like any romantic comedy. Its heroine is a likable if confused young woman who believes she needs one thing when, actually, she probably needs something quite different. That we can see what moves she should make to be happy is what makes this type of movie so fun. A romantic comedy works because the audience knows better than the characters what they should experience.

In this film, Maggie wants to be a mother. While she debates the method to achieve this outcome, she believes she has what it takes to be good in the role and knows she wants to experience this milestone. Her thoughts on the subject take an interesting turn when she gets to know John, an adjunct professor at the New School in Manhattan where Maggie works. While they share views on many subjects, the potential for their friendship would appear limited given that John is married to an ambitious woman named Georgette. But this is a movie, after all, and there’s nothing like an inconvenient relationship to fuel a romantic comedy. After John leaves Georgette for Maggie, and we fast forward a few years, we learn that – even in a movie – happy endings can be more complicated than people anticipate.

We trust, from the start of this entertaining film, that its lead characters will ultimately come to their senses and make the choices that make sense. What’s fun about a romantic comedy is how long that can take. In Maggie’s Plan, before the complications resolve, we are entertained by a delightful cast, precise dialogue, a lovely visit to Manhattan and a gentle reminder of what we can experience when we let life take its own turns. As Maggie experiences, perhaps we create our own disappointments when we try to manipulate life’s outcomes.

For Greta Gerwig, so delightful in the romantic comedy Francis Ha, the film reinforces the unique niche she commands in the movie landscape. No matter the dialogue she is given, this remarkably fresh actress makes every word sound spontaneous, as if she just figured out how to handle a situation. Ethan Hawke is his reliable self as John while Julianne Moore has a great time – complete with an exaggerated Danish accent – as a determined woman who tries to hide her emotional weaknesses. And, because this is a movie, those limitations can be very funny. Moore nearly walks away with the film with a performance of precise delight.

As with many romantic comedies, Maggie’s Plan must speed things up in the final act to resolve all its loose ends before the final credits. And those resolutions can feel somewhat artificial. But who cares? We don’t see romantic comedies because they reflect real life. We love these movies for making us believe, again, in happy endings. Everyone loves a happy ending.

Maggie’s Plan

  • Content: High. How a young woman tries to navigate romance and motherhood becomes a delightful and enlightening romantic comedy.
  • Entertainment: High. While the story may sound simple, it’s filled with marvelous humanity and humor as writer/director Rebecca Miller brings the characters to life.
  • Message: Medium. No matter what choices we make in our lives, nothing is quite as simple in real life as it appears in the movies.
  • Relevance: Medium. Any time we can share an entertaining film with our older children can be great fun. But this is not a film for the entire family.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Share this film with your older children as an opportunity to discuss how we experience the consequences of our choices.

(Maggie’s Plan is rated R for “language and some sexuality”. The film runs 138 minutes. Read about other romantic comedies in Arts and Leisure Online.)

4.5 Popcorn Boxes

How Movies Love a Good Romance

The magic of Maggie’s Plan reminds us what fun we have at the movies when the camera explores how people discover their feelings for each other. Here are a few of my favorite romantic comedies. And there are hundreds to choose from!

It Happened One Night (1934)

This one started it all. Clark Gable – a big star under contract at MGM – loudly complained about being loaned to Columbia to make this comedy opposite Claudette Colbert. But director Frank Capra knew what he was doing to cast opposites who would create onscreen tension. The result is a landmark film that won five Oscars and invented the romantic comedy.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The great Katharine Hepburn scored big at the movies when she transferred this Broadway hit to the screen. The actress is perfectly cast as a strong-willed woman with precise romantic plans in a Phillip Barry comedy that reminds us we are never in total control. James Stewart won an Oscar for brilliantly countering Hepburn’s intensity with his appealing calm.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Leave it to the great writer/director Billy Wilder to cook up this irresistible farce about two musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who pretend to be women to escape the Mob. Lemmon, especially, hits all the right notes in a performance of precision and perfection that, for some reason, lost at Oscar time to Charlton Heston’s dramatics in Ben Hur. Oh, well.

Barefoot in the Park (1967)

Comedy legend Neil Simon based his Broadway hit on his own early years of marriage. With Jane Fonda and little-known Robert Redford – who starred in the stage original – this fun look at marital ups and downs retains its romantic magic after all these years. The delightful Mildred Natwick was nominated for an Oscar for her hysterical turn as Fonda’s mother.

Annie Hall (1977)

Who can resist Diane Keaton as a loveable lunatic who drives a VW convertible in Manhattan and falls for Woody Allen’s neurotic intellect? This lovable comedy reaches beyond Allen’s command of one-liners about New York City to create a multi-layered look at the dynamics of relationships. Keaton and Allen make us laugh, think and wonder at it all.

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

The late Nora Ephron wrote this delightful look at the realities of romance from the perspective of two friends who believe they can avoid the pitfalls. Few films make us laugh and think with such balance thanks to the performances from Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as well as director Rob Reiner’s clever inclusion of commentary from real-life couples.

Sleepless in Seattle (1983)

Once again, Nora Ephron creates an ultimate romantic fantasy with this bewitching tale of a young boy who plays matchmaker for his widowed father. With Tom Hanks at his most likable, and Meg Ryan at her least annoying, Ephron uses the traditions of movie romance (created in such films as An Affair to Remember) to examine the realities of relationships.

Notting Hill (1999)

What better recipe could a moviemaker follow than to cast Julia Roberts as a reluctant celebrity and Hugh Grant as a charming book seller? This delightful comedy from director Roger Michel creates an ultimate romantic fantasy from a grounded foundation of real people. And look for Hugh Bonneville, the patriarch of Downton Abbey, as Grant’s faithful friend.

Up in the Air (2009)

On the surface this brittle comedy from writer/director Jason Reitman would appear to examine the downside of a down economy. But at its heart it’s a love story about a successful man and his unfulfilled fantasies of the peace that romance can create. George Clooney has rarely been as likable, accessible and touching, with newcomer Anna Kendrick keeping pace.

Now, with Maggie’s Plan, a new portrait of romantic comedy enters the gallery. And we’ll remember this one for a long time.

See you at the movies.