Definitely, Maybe (2008) / Romance-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, including some frank dialogue, language and smoking
Running Time: 105 min.
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz, Elizabeth Banks, Abigail Breslin, Kevin Kline, Derek Lucas, Liana Balaban, Nestor Serrano
Cameo: Kevin Corrigan, Robert Klein, Adam Brooks
Director: Adam Brooks
Screenplay: Adam Brooks
Hollywood slick, but undeniably sweet, Definitely Maybe scores a great deal of its points through good characterizations and enough unique situations to actually have us interested in the outcome, even if we're usually a step ahead of where it's going. It's the sort of movie that Woody Allen might have made once upon a time, although less neurotic and featuring a younger set of actors. It's rich enough in its development to give it a clear contrast from the sea of other romantic comedies that get churned out in any given year. It's also less artistic than Woody's finest, but what it lacks in flourish it makes up for in energy, and we can appreciate the way writer-director Adam Brooks (screenwriter for Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason and Wimbledon) takes the time to build up the story's many fine small touches to give the larger ones the depth and interest necessary to soar when it needs.
The premise of the film is that divorced father Will Hayes (Reynolds, Smokin' Aces) is cajoled into relating the story in how he met his ex and the mother of his precocious daughter Maya (Breslin, No Reservations), who seems sure that she can get them back together if he could remember why he fell in love with her in the first place. It's a story he has kept putting off telling, but he finally consents on the condition that he be able to talk change the names of the women in his life, leaving her to have to guess which one would ultimately be the one who won his heart and he finally married.
Much of the film is set in the 1990s, where a younger Will Hayes is a single intern working for the Clinton campaign for the presidency in New York City, a position that has had him leave his home state of Wisconsin, as well as his college sweetheart Emily (Banks, Fred Claus), for two months. While in New York, Will befriends a quirky, free-spirited coworker named April (Fisher, The Lookout), and later, a sexually open, up-and-coming journalist named Summer (Weisz, My Blueberry Nights), to whom he must deliver a book on Emily's behalf. Through a series of circumstances, Will goes in and out of relationships with all three of the women, but the timing is always off even if the chemistry is not.
Although I do find Definitely, Maybe to be a pleasant surprise as far as "date movies" go, in retrospect, I think that something greater was missed by not aiming just a little higher. I'm going to elaborate the points separately for contrast.
The good stuff: Brooks definitely breathes some life into these characters by giving them all personalities that have a sense of depth. Unlike cookie-cutter Hollywood productions that have leads who are only as appealing as the actors they plug into the roles, there are actual characters here that have their own baggage and personality flaws. Even Will himself can be a bit of a jackass at times, such as a scene where he asks Summer to bury a story for his sake, and basically delivers an ultimatum that is probably more than a little unfair. One gets the sense as we watch Will's ordeals with life and love that much of his problems in relationships are of his own making, which is refreshingly different than the usual staple of the main protagonist merely being unlucky in love because he keeps meeting flawed mates. Brooks delivers zip and energy, plus good humor, never straying terribly long to the point of tedium in any one scenario, and does manage to pull off a couple of tearjerker moments near the end that are earned.
Nitpicks: Although the outcome is fine, and I wholeheartedly recommend Definitely, Maybe to the traditional rom-com crowd, I think in a larger sense that Brooks' film could have had much more crossover appeal had he not directed the film himself. Not that Brooks' direction is terrible -- it's just his script deserves someone with the maturity behind the camera that Brooks shows in his writing. The script is rather unconventional, but the execution, the editing, the aesthetics and the cinematography are right from the traditionally everything-must-be-cute chick-flick handbook. The same goes with the casting, which is full of actors that moviegoers will no doubt find cute and funny, but they never quite seem like these people ever really fit together somehow. Perhaps some of this is due to Ryan Reynolds in the lead, who is certainly a funny and clever actor with romantic comedy appeal, but his deadpan delivery works better for comedies than in soul-searching romantic dramas, which this plays out as half the time. He doesn't seem like a man who has been a father and husband with a history of emotional hardship, and as a result, the film pleases us with its pith and flair without ever making a definite connection of emotional depth. It doesn't really makes sense to include the details Will does in relating his story to his daughter, such as the first instance when he purchases a pack of cigarettes, although this does set up the blatant commercial for American Spirit cigarettes in the middle of the film, posing as a friendly wager to see which cigarette is "healthiest" and lasts longest.
For those into romantic comedies, Definitely, Maybe is definitely recommended to you, and to those who could take or leave them, it's more of a maybe. There's enough original material here to make it distinct among other films of its kind, and yet in the way it plays, Brooks so very much keeps the development of the story and the character interactions wholly conventional. As it stands, I like the movie as a piece of entertainment quite a bit, but the missed potential for something more still gnaws at my feelings of unabashed exuberance. The next Woody Allen isn't quite here yet.
©2008 Vince Leo