Definitely, Maybe

February, 2008, Comedy

Directed by:Adam Brooks

Starring:Ryan Reynolds, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Elizabeth Banks, and Rachel Weisz

Romantic comedies, like Rodney Dangerfield, don’t get much respect. Thus far, this year’s crop, (27 Dresses, Fools Gold, et al) provides ample proof that the big screen rarely compares favorably with what television’s better situation comedies have to offer. That’s because current movies in this genre seem content to throw youthful, good-looking faces up on the screen without worrying too much about what they do or say. But writer/director Adam Brooks, who’s worked on his share of this film staple over the last couple of decades, (French Kiss, Practical Magic) took the time to craft an intelligent script here, which his cast delivers with crisp competency, producing a welcome exception to the rule; the result is a consistently charming, rueful examination of the costs of romance which manages to inject some life into a category lately gone to seed.

Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds plays Will Hayes, an attractive & successful political consultant in the midst of a divorce who’s maneuvered into providing his 11 year-old daughter Maya, (Abigail Breslin, the annoying star of Little Miss Sunshine) with details on the women in his life. She wants to know why her parents are splitting up; Will wants to explain how adults can fall in and then out of love. He decides to recount, in flashback, the inter-locking stories of the three great loves of his life, fictionalizing their names so Maya has to guess which one came to be her mother. Is it the All-American blond college sweetheart Emily, (Elizabeth Banks), redheaded woman-child April, (Isla Fisher) or career-obsessed Summer, (Rachel Weisz) with her dark good looks, intellectual gifts and sensual allure? As Will recounts the decade which lead up to Maya’s conception, he paints a picture of each romance that allows Maya to admire the unique, individual qualities of this trio. When she finally unravels the mystery and identifies her birth mother, Will carefully explains that the very best part of their failed marriage is Maya herself - - in a scene which provides a rare glimpse into the pain caused by even the most well-intentioned of divorces. 

But this is Hollywood, where discomforting insight must give way to the box-office, so Brooks conjures up an improbably happy ending that provides balm for the marital wounds Maya inevitably suffers as the result of her parent’s breakup. Definitely Maybe suggests that in this age of serial monogamy, the old cliché “if at first you don’t succeed” describes the strategy most likely to bring ultimate happiness, even when that involves children from a previous relationship. As sound marital advice, that remains cloyingly romantic, but as the stuff of slick cinematic fluff, it works surprisingly well.

That’s due in large part to Reynolds’ portrayal of Will, Fisher’s spunky presentation of April and Weisz’s erotically charged Summer. I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing Reynolds before, but he makes Will appealing by not trying too hard, capturing a trace of the graceful casualness seen early in Cary Grant. Will’s ambitions, combined with an inability to understand his real motivations, render him ripe for the stock-in-trade romantic confusion that typifies this type of movie and the youthful Canadian actor brings just the right about of late-blooming insight to his role. Ms. Fisher was a knockout in last year’s The Lookout, playing a dim-witted but feral stripper who seduces a troubled young man into becoming an accomplice to armed robbery. In this film, her April lacks the heavy-breathing sexuality of that earlier performance, offering instead an appealing examination of a bright young woman unmoored by the premature loss of her father. Weisz, whose role as the passionately committed activist was the very best part of The Constant Gardner three years ago, brings her patented intensity to Summer, a young woman whose lofty ideals and smoldering sensuality mask an ambition as hard-edged as it is well camouflaged; it’s hard to quarrel with her ethical decisions even when they cause others unnecessary pain.  

But the most intriguing aspect of Definitely, Maybe lies in its sure-footed setting. Will leaves college to work as a staffer on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign; Brooks gets the panic-stricken anxiety of political staffers just right and then cleverly weaves Will’s various romantic journeys around the commander-in-chief’s subsequent sexual peccadilloes, providing a neat commentary on the ire many of Clinton’s supporters felt at his presidential infidelity. Brooks contrasts those historical facts with Will’s own efforts to grasp more honestly the relationship between sexual urges and the importance of commitment in relationships. His dissatisfaction with his own choices mirrors his political dissolution with his one-time idol, enabling the writer/director to take some sharp-elbowed jabs at a well-known public figure inside this fictionalized fantasy.

The verdict? An amusing diversion, with rapid-fire dialogue reminiscent of the screwball comedies of the 1940’s, laced with enough sociological insight to make this one more than mere Valentine’s Day eye-candy.


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