A precocious child’s question of “how did mommy meet daddy?” generates little curiosity, but modest smiles, in the new romantic comedy from writer Adam Brooks. As a scripter, Brooks is a rom-com factory, having penned upscale fare like
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. It’s hardly high praise to say that his first directing effort in seven years (
The Invisible Circus, anyone?) is his best, even if one senses he’s taken this opportunity to cram in every little rom-com concept he’s ever envisioned. On the plus side, that means a largess of characters and themes and a genuine desire to explore them, good intentions that earn the film a grudging pass. Yet unlike the similar
Love Actually, which were dense, but light on their feet,
is a messier thing that relies on coincidence and cliché (how many engagement rings can one man buy?) too easily to take its place amongst the best modern romances.
If directing is 90 percent casting, Brooks left the gate at a disadvantage, tapping soulless Ryan Reynolds to play Will, a thirtysomething Manhattanite about to put pen to paper and finalize his divorce. The handsome, Canadian-born Reynolds ( Smokin’ Aces ), whose perfect front teeth and severe hairline give him an eerie android look in close-ups, struggles to tamp down his natural desire to be a smarmy jerk. Brooks, however, scores big with Oscar-nominated pixie Abigail Breslin ( Little Miss Sunshine ) who plays Will’s daughter Maya. Sure, Brooks occasionally lets Breslin overindulge, but Maya is less a sitcom-style quip factory, and more a smart young lady.
And when Will picks her up at school one day, he discovers that she’s become distressingly smarter, having learned in class where babies come from. This makes Maya want to know how her parents met. So Will tells her in the form of a bedtime story, changing the names of the three paramours who rotated in and out of Will’s life during the early ’90s, when Maya was conceived. Will (and Brooks) keeps Maya (and the audience) guessing as to which woman would become her mother. Troublingly, the whodunit (or maybe whodunhim) hook leaves Maya caring deeply about something the rest of us don’t care about in the least. And while Brooks keeps things chaste, it still calls into question whether it’s an appropriate story for a child. Because Will, let’s just say, gets around.
It is 1992 when Will exits the leafy innocence of Madison, Wis., to pursue a political career in New York. He leaves behind college sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks) with a promise to be a good boy. But she’s presumably seen too many movies not to fear the corrupting power of New York, and within moments of landing a gig carting toilet paper around presidential hopeful Bill Clinton’s Manhattan campaign office, Will meets apolitical, free-spirited April (Isla Fisher). April, who only works for Clinton because it pays better than babysitting, starts out a contrivance, a giggly spirit with a fondness for Nirvana and, incongruously, any inscribed copy of Jane Eyre, which serves only to provide the movie’s emotional peak. Fisher at first has trouble latching onto such a self-consciously odd character, but soon settles in, finding some bittersweet notes as someone who wants more from Will than just his friendship.
So Emily and April are two potential moms down. There’s still one to go. Before leaving Madison, Emily gave Will a package to deliver to her friend Summer (Rachel Weisz). Will tracks her down, finding an attractive aspiring journalist sleeping with her college professor (Kevin Kline, always a pleasure) double-digits older than she. Of course, with Brooks’ script folding in on itself too conveniently, Summer ends up writing an expose that jeopardizes the chances of Will’s new boss, a Rudy Giuliani type mayoral candidate. But no sooner is Summer out of the picture, then Emily reappears. And so it goes, round and round. None of these women are perfect matches for Will, allowing Brooks to keep us guessing (if only because we’re supposed to) the identity of Maya’s mother.
The early ’90s flashback structure allows Brooks to cleverly link Will’s romantic fortunes to Clinton’s. And Brooks doesn’t let “The Man from Hope” off the hook, although he could have mined this territory to better effect. Will’s idealism seems to fade with knowledge of each Clinton fling, and if our last Democratic president teaches Will anything, it’s that the narcissistic impulses that can drive personal and professional ambition must give way to the difficulties of real life once other people get involved. As Maya learns, nothing complicates your plans faster, or more irreparably, then the motives, whims and emotions of others. This ground may be poorly tilled, but at least the seeds are planted. What works best in Definitely, Maybe is that, unlike the man-children who populate the recent romantic-comedy successes of Judd Apatow, Brooks’ creations don’t have to learn to be adults. They’re adults to begin with.
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Derek Luke, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz
Director/Screenwriter: Adam Brooks
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, including some frank dialogue, language and smoking.
Running time: 110 min.
Release date: February 14, 2008