Rebecca Miller’s latest film plays out as a brilliant parody of what might be described as the New York comedy of letters, especially as elaborated by such walk-and-talk directors as Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich and Edward Burns. Set almost entirely within a four-block radius of Washington Square Park, it counts Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and Travis Fimmel amongst its supporting cast, but centres mainly on Greta Gerwig, Julianne Moore and Ethan Hawke, who are here presented in something like their ideal or archetypal academic selves. Of the three, only Moore plays a fully tenured academic – Georgette, a Professor at Columbia University, who is presented as both masochistically driven in her professional life but also quite sensuous in her choice of academic interests, resulting in the kind of melodramatic icefire that Moore does so well. Next on the list is Hawke, who plays her husband, John, a part-time fictocritical anthropologist at the New School who takes care of the family and is supported by Georgette while he tries to finish his latest book, in the kind of hangdog, put-up, “illogical, wasteful, messy” kind of role that Hawke also does so well. Coming between them is Gerwig as Maggie, an arts administrator at the New School whose job is to put graduating students in touch with possible employment and industry opportunities. As always, Gerwig plays a bit of a waif, and while her open-eyed tweeness here reminded me of many of Allen’s ingenues in particular – especially Juliette Lewis in Husbands and Wives – she also has a different kind of millennial pragmatism that distances her from the academy, with much of the first act revolving around her comic search for a sperm donor so that she can raise a child independently.
It’s a bit of a surprise, then, when the film follows the old-fashioned route and John and Maggie develop something of a tutor-student romance, leading to John leaving Georgette and moving in with Maggie, claiming that she provides him with a literary inspiration he never experienced in his marriage. What is even more surprising is that the film suddenly jumps forward a couple of years to reveal that John and Maggie have indeed moved in together and had a child but that Maggie is somewhat sick of John and wants to give him back to Georgette. For the first part of the film, it felt as Maggie’s plan might refer to her artificial insemination, and while that is still part of the overall picture, it is at this point that she concocts a more specific and screwy plan with Georgette: to reunite Georgette and John and get the family unit back together again. Critically, that’s not to say that Georgette has been pining for John this whole time, but more that she wants stability for her children, which turns out to be Maggie’s reason for getting rid of John as well. In fact, as the film proceeds and the plan evolves, John is more and more sidelined by Maggie and Georgette’s efforts to raise their kids together – they effectively move in together at one point – making for a wonderfully sly thought experiment in how romantic comedies would look if men were treated as vehicles for procreation, childbirth and family-building in the same way as women. In many ways, that gesture is the common denominator between Maggie’s various plans as well, all of which see her aiming to achieve parenthood in some way – with or without men – as she revolves through a number of different family scenarios that gives the film as a bit of a Ronde vibe, especially when all the characters converge on Central Park for the final sequence.
As a result, the plan to reunite Georgette and John is not exactly the centre of the film – none of Maggie’s plans are, at least not individually – but in many ways it is the most memorable, just because of the wonderful way in which it revives and revises the remarriage tropes that preoccupied screwball comedy in its classic phase. As with so many screwball outings, the critical period in that remarriage enterprise involves a retreat to the woods, although here the action doesn’t move to vernal New England but the depths of the Canadian winter, where Maggie contrives for Georgette and John to both present at an international fictocritical conference. In some of the best scenes in the film, Georgette then proceeds to “flirt” with John, pressing all his buttons as she treats him just like he her needs to treat him, managing him by playing the role of the adoring younger woman in order to recover him from the younger woman who won him over in the first place. It’s at this point that Moore’s intensified accent and pronounced rhoaticism also comes into its own, turning every utterance awry as she flirts with John like she’s never encountered anyone from academia in her entire life (“Nobody unpacks fictocriticism like you do.”). In the early parts of the film, I wasn’t sure about these speech patterns – Moore’s voice is so great on its own terms – but it works brilliantly for the artifice and double play on display here, especially when attached to some preposterously sentimental confidence (“We have to be real…the snow is melting.) Meanwhile, all the “quirks” that made Hawke so witty, charming and “lovable” become symptoms of an almost petulant narcissism that has to be relentlessly assuaged, making for a wonderfully screwy reinvention of the comedy of remarriage once again. In the final whammy, Georgette tremulously asks John if she can read his book after spending the night with him at the conference, a brilliant home run that provides us with the delicious spectacle of seeing him go through the motions of telling Maggie, anticipating endless reams of pathos on her part even as she is desperate for him to fall into the trap and break ties with her, albeit in the friendliest and most good-natured manner possible.
Key to that good-natured quality is the intense writerliness of the film, reflecting Miller’s dual background as novelist and director. While that admittedly sometimes produces the flatness that can arise from a writer filming their own work, it also makes the film peculiarly attuned to the academic writing process – drafts, edits, feedback – as well as suffusing it with a real flair for academic diction, jargon and affectation. With virtually every character involved or affiliated with academia in some way – Columbia, New School, University of Wisconsin, as well as what appears to be the University of Quebec – it often feels like an eccentric cognitive map of American academe as much as anything else, a fictocritical riff that feels as if it might easily reflect Miller’s experiences of academia, if not her actual life story. As with Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, the result is a parodic cinema of letters that still manages to retain and enjoy some of the hyper-literate preciousness of the world it is parodying, in one of the most finely pitched visions of the twee indie universe that Gerwig has built around her over the last decade, if only because that universe continually feels on the very verge of reaching its logical and parodic conclusion.