MOVIE REVIEW: An upbeat week at the movies with well-developed characters
Maggie's Plan ● Welcome to Happiness
May 19, 2016
Let's just set the tone right now and say, quirky Greta Gerwig goodness. Written and directed by Rebecca Miller, MAGGIE'S PLAN is fun and light, unfolding with inherent humor fueled by Gerwig's Maggie and her relationships with Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore. Nothing is ever forced. Rebecca Miller has not only written a strong script with well-developed characters, but has constructed a visual grammar that matches the story and the characters beat for beat, delivering an emotional satisfying and wonderfully enjoyable moviegoing experience.
Maggie has a plan. She wants a baby. In nine months. And we hear all about it the minute the camera starts to roll as Maggie regales her best friend Tony with this plan. Admitting that she fails at long term relationships, Maggie has decided she will forego a relationship and opt for a sperm donation from a friend like Tony. Already happily married and with a child of his own, Tony is not the ideal candidate, but Maggie has an alternate in mind - Guy, math genius turned local pickle entrepreneur whom she sees every week at the Farmer's Market. Although Guy is more than up to the task of impregnation involving physical contact, Maggie doesn't want the "personal touch"; a turkey baster will do for her plan.
Of course, just as Maggie is about to put her plan into action, she meets frustrated writer and adjunct professor John at the college where she also happens to work. Maggie counsels and advises art students while John teaches and deals with writer's block and insecurities associated with being married to the uber-successful and overbearing Georgette, a renowned anthropology professor, and raising two young children. A friendship quickly ensues between John and Maggie as he bemoans his loveless and frustrating marriage and Maggie gives him unlimited pep talks and support. Needless to say, on the night Maggie is actually "doing the deed" with her turkey baster, John shows up at her apartment, professing undying love and, of course, needing a place to stay.
Fast forward three years and we find John and Georgette divorced and splitting custody of their two kids while John and Maggie are married and parents to 3-year old Lily. Maggie is, on the surface, ecstatic. She is not only mother to Lily but to John's other two children as well. But it's not just being a mother that Maggie is forced to handle. She is now saddled with being the breadwinner and essentially raising all three children as Georgette is travelling with speaking engagements and John is, well, John still hasn't completed his novel and basically does nothing but lay every burden on Maggie and on top of that, ignores her.
Finally realizing she has fallen out of love with John, while convincing Georgette that Georgette has fallen back in love with John, Maggie concocts yet another plan in which she hopes to extricate herself from her marriage and John, sending him packing back to Georgette.
As Maggie, Greta Gerwig shines in one of her most affable and bubbly performances. Be she chattering away a mile a minute as if trying to get her thoughts out before they leave her mind, or sitting uncomfortably silently with a perplexed look on her face, she charms and makes you smile and laugh at some of the absurd thoughts Maggie has. You believe every second of Gerwig's performance.
Georgette is an interesting role for Julianne Moore, although I am still ambivalent about the performance. I like it, particularly her humorless dialogue delivery which fuels the comedy of the character, but am ambivalent on the whole of the character although there are more moments of success than not. Always a joy is a chance to see Moore showcase her chops with physical comedy and here she gets to do that in spades. Standout is the chemistry between Gerwig and Moore which works beautifully due in large part to Gerwig's performance and her ability to sit and "just be" with a look of imploring on her face. Adorably funny. And yes, there are even some touching maternal scenes between the two women as tides turn and affections shift. Although seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum the characters of Maggie and Georgette are very much alike on many levels. Ethan Hawke deftly plays second fiddle to Gerwig and Moore, but adds a haplessness to John that serves the story and character well. Totally enjoyable are Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as husband and wife/best friends to Maggie, Tony and Felicia, while Travis Fimmel plays Guy with a fish-out-of-water tone that just makes you laugh.
Written and lensed with an observational quality and character study about it, MAGGIE'S PLAN is clever in its dialogue and subsequent design. Focusing on intelligent people but without making them too "toney" so as to be unrelatable. Miller keeps the film grounded. Sabine Hoffman's editing is crisp with a beautiful flow and fast pace to it. The film's pacing mirrors the timetable of Maggie always having plans. Rebecca Miller couldn't have done better than Sam Levy as cinematographer on MAGGIE'S PLAN. Not only does he excel at lensing and lighting the New York palette - especially in winter - but he knows how to light and frame Gerwig to best advantage.
According to Levy, one of Miller's mandates for the look of the film was that "she wanted it to look 'awake'. . . The feeling of being awake, which I thought was a wonderful word to describe how you'd like something to look; kind of an emotional word. . .The challenge for the project was to find out specifically what being "awake" means when you translate it into something photographic; photographic in a movie, over the course of 90 minutes. It shifts and changes with an ensemble cast and how to utilize the tools, the camera, the lenses, the lighting, the color palette; how to utilize those to find a very particular cue, finding the shimmer and the glow in the image so you can give this kind of awake feeling, but in such a way where I have a control" were the primary concerns for Levy. "I wanted it to have the feeling of reality but with what she called a 'metaphysical overlay'." The end result speaks for itself.
Completing MAGGIE'S PLAN is the scoring from composer Michael Rohatyn and individual musical pieces selected by music supervisor Adam Horovitz.
WELCOME TO HAPPINESS
Debuting last year at "Dances With Films", one of the most sparkling indie gems to come around in a while finally has a distribution deal and opens in limited release and on VOD this weekend. That gem is WELCOME TO HAPPINESS and that's exactly how one feels on watching the film - happy.
A dramatic fantasy that is whimsical with childlike wonder while positing thoughtful commentary on cause and effect, the universal design of things, and the idea of "what if?" - What if I could change things? Would I? - first time feature writer/director Oliver Thompson captures the imagination from the start thanks to a novel idea and creative story, buttressing that with magic and mystery, dynamic colorful visuals and a standout cast that carry the load and maintain the cinematic flow through some weak patches within the film's whole.
Woody Ward is a writer who serves as guardian between two worlds. In his apartment, rented from a landlord named Moses, is a door hidden within a closet serving as a gateway to a place of healing, peace and second chances for those who seek it. Individuals randomly show up at Woody's door within moments of him receiving a cryptic dot-matrix print-out with questions specific to each individual. Those questions, and the applicant's answers, are the first tine of the litmus test to determine if they get to go through the door. The second is a magical rock that changes color.
Although seemingly content with this arrangement, when Woody himself hits a snag in his own creative process, jeopardizing his book contract with his somewhat testy agent Priscilla and causing undue stress that impacts a budding romance with his neighbor Trudy, jealousy and a bit of resentment rears its ugly head. Why can't he take advantage of the second chance afforded others by going through the door?
The world of make-believe takes hold as Woody meets a fantastical cast of characters who seek entry through the door, among them a painter named Nyles and a baseball card collector named Ripley, Proctor and Lillian who are the puppet masters of second chances within the magical world, and Claiborne and Osmond who are in effect the "guardians of happiness" itself.
Kyle Gallner is the very embodiment of the "Derwood-like" nature of Woody". Likeable, engaging, innocent and having the blind faith needed for happiness, Gallner captives and leads us through the narrative. The grounding and calm of Nick Offerman's Moses envelops the film with its own security blanket. He is comforting and provides a sage, adult voice. Notable is Paget Brewster as agent Priscilla. Beyond charming are Frances Conroy and Robert Pike Daniel as Claiborne and Osmond. As Lillian and Proctor, Molly Quinn and Keegan Michael-Key are perfection as they embody the very essence of whimsy and happiness.
From Thompson's use of color, exquisite visual tonal bandwidth with lighting and lensing - particularly cinematographer Justin Talley's use of bright light as a counter to darker, more homey yet claustrophobic and warm interiors (all of which go through stages of saturation to complement emotional states) - to the whimsy of the music, and the playful undertones of "Happiness", one is enchanted and charmed. Celebratory is Jessica Bluwal's costuming and Patrick Thompson's "through the door" production design. Colorful, jewel-toned and surreal costumes and production design are beautifully interwoven, lending to the emotional ambience and whimsy.
And while there is "whimsy" to the story and its visual design, Thompson doesn't shy away from those darker thematic elements of life which lead one to wonder about a "second chance" and "what if" options. Opening a Pandora's Box of New Age wisdom, albeit an unorthodox but effective approach with the genre meld at play, Thompson demonstrates his willingness to take risks as a storyteller and filmmaker. Given that, there are a few pitfalls that feel amiss within the overall tonal bandwidth and visual grammar, but not to such a degree as to detract from the moviegoing experience.
Delightful from beginning to end, no one would presume that WELCOME TO HAPPINESS is Oliver Thompson's writing and directing debut. Although there are some stumbles on the road to a smooth emotional conclusion, the levels of craftsmanship on both the technical and storytelling fronts are solidly engaging and intertwined. He is a gifted storyteller, melding visuals, story and performance and truly welcomes us with WELCOME TO HAPPINESS.