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Everyone, at some point in life, wants to take a bat to Comcast. And “going postal,” its definition generalized after more than 20 years in the lexicon, does not mean choosing USPS instead of email.
Likewise, director Rodrigo Plá’s A Monster With a Thousand Heads is no sci-fi movie. It’s about a middle-age Mexican woman wrestling with the bureaucratic beast that is the health care system on behalf of her cancer-stricken husband.
The film opens with a wide shot of a room in a sleeping household whose inhabitants will soon be woken when the man, Memo, grows weaker and falls. Eventually we get a closeup of his wife, Sonia (Jana Raluy), her weariness leaping off the screen. (If Raluy were, say, Jennifer Aniston, there would be a big to-do about her zero-makeup bravery.)
The next morning, Sonia merely seems like a persistent but perhaps impatient caretaker while trying to get the doctor in charge of Memo’s treatment on the phone. Persistent she is: Sonia then drags her teenage son, Dario (Sebastián Aguirre), to the physician’s office and waits for hours to get him (Hugo Albores) to point out to the couple’s insurer that it mistakenly refused to cover a medication that Memo desperately needs. An indifferent receptionist gives her the runaround until nearly the end of the workday, at which point she tells Sonia that Dr. Villalba has left. Really, though, he just wanted to get home and play tennis.
The receptionist gets off easy with an ear-twisting; for Villalba and others involved in approving the medication, Sonia has something more extreme in mind. “Mom, it’s embarrassing!” Dario says when his mother tells a cabbie to follow the doctor’s car.
Written by Laura Santullo, Monster offers a story that is globally sympathetic (at least for viewers who don’t have hassle-free health care). From Villalba’s apathetic attitude toward his patient to detestable insurance company policies that pressure caseworkers to randomly deny authorization to a set percentage of clients, the film’s gradual revelations make Sonia’s actions justifiable—almost.
Anyone who’s glimpsed Monster’s one-sheet already knows that the end-of-her-rope wife and mother brandishes a gun. A fantasy of many caretakers who repeatedly beat their heads against the system’s walls? Maybe. But the point at which Sonia whips out the pistol is so early, you’ll laugh once the shock wears off. Surely, she’s struggled with Memo’s coverage before, but we don’t see that; we know only that she couldn’t get in contact with a doctor one day.
After the idea settles in and the urgency of Sonia’s quest—and the inequity of the insurance company’s ways—become clear, you might feel more sympathetic, or at least roll with it. Raluy’s realistically desperate performance plus Plá’s inventive direction make this easier: Plá often shifts perspectives, but judiciously enough that it’s sometimes imperceptible. He’ll double back a few moments, for example, replaying a scene from another character’s viewpoint. Or he’ll simply return to a location that Sofia just left, to let you listen in on how others are talking about her. The effect is that you watch more carefully, catching details you might have missed the first time around.
Throughout, too, is narration from a court hearing—testimony about an event that’s currently taking place on-screen, or the swearing-in of a witness while the camera shows the person before he knows he’s about to become a witness. This chatter builds throughout, but the result is like a firecracker that doesn’t go off: There’s a near-climactic situation, and then the film just ends. Maybe, after raising the tension so early, Plá thought it better to go out with a whimper. In his next film, though, the director might consider turning this dynamic around.
The title character of Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan also takes an important matter into her own hands. But her pressing issue isn’t medical—it’s maternal.
“I need a baby!” Maggie (Greta Gerwig) tells her friend Tony (Bill Hader) as they walk the streets of New York, his toddler in tow, at the start of the film. She then breaks the news that she’s chosen to be inseminated, not by a sperm-bank stranger but someone they knew in college: a guy with a shaggy beard who’s now a “pickle entrepreneur.” (At this point, it should also be noted, Tony’s kid is wearing a button that says, “Imagine there’s no fracking.” So ready yourself for a hipster, uber-liberal ride, not unlike the rest of Gerwig’s filmography.)
Just around the time the deed is to be done, however, Maggie, an academic director of business development, meets John (Ethan Hawke), a professor at her school. According to Tony’s wife, Felicia (Maya Rudolph, adding a spark in even this tiny role), John’s regarded in his field as “one of the bad boys of ficto-critical anthropology.” They connect quickly, but he’s married to a fellow professor, Georgette (Julianne Moore), with whom he has two children. Georgette has reportedly been referred to as “glacial” and “terrifying”; John tells Maggie that “she’s wonderful, she’s just destroying my life.” (For added frigidity, Moore puts on an accent that’s not quite placeable, but allegedly Danish.)
Let’s pause here. On their best professional days, Hawke and Moore would seem an unlikely couple. That Georgette is portrayed as a rigid but rising academic star, fashionable and ambitious, and John, despite his intellectual achievements, is unshakably Hawke, forces upon the film a narrative disconnect that’s difficult to overcome.
Gerwig and Hawke, however, have a much more realistic chemistry, so it’s significantly more believable when Maggie and John fall in love and get married. (Which happens somewhere along the line when Miller, with zero indication, fast-forwards three years and suddenly shows them with a kid of their own.) But Maggie’s ultimate plan—which develops when she discovers that domestic life isn’t so blissful—involves rekindling the flame between John and Georgette. When she befriends Georgette (another tough plot turn to buy considering that Georgette turned her bitterness over the split into a book), the professor with a tightly pulled bun goes rather gushy about her ex. Really?
Maggie is also inconsistently drawn. Miller adapted the script from a friend’s unpublished novel, and regardless of where the character’s details originated, Maggie’s scattershot personality is another of the film’s drawbacks. This problem, though, is easier to gloss over. We’re used to seeing Gerwig play quirky and somewhat flaky, so Maggie’s mustard-colored tights and naivete regarding John’s initial motives, for example, seem natural. But suddenly she turns into the level-headed one of the triangle, balancing her job, the kids, and the family’s responsibilities in general while John gets lost in writing an endless book. It’s great to watch a with-it Gerwig; it’s just not clear when exactly Maggie became that way.
Maggie’s Plan still manages to be enjoyable despite its flaws. It offers bits of intellectual musing as well as mild humor throughout (Georgette may be an enigma, but her pronunciation of “Pussy Riot” is exquisite). John and Maggie’s daughter is ridiculously cute. And the idea of the wives, ex and new, actually liking each other is a nice thought. But then Miller caps it all with a pointless twist, solidifying your suspicion that the film’s breezy quality was actually compensation for haphazard storytelling.
A Monster With a Thousand Heads opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.
Maggie’s Plan opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row.