Movie Review: 'Definitely, Maybe'
Quiet, thoughtful and often very sad, this is that rare Hollywood romance that contains both feelings and ideas; a movie that refuses to serve up the usual pandering fantasy about finding happily-ever-after bliss. It's a breath of fresh air in a genre that's almost entirely gone stale.
Ryan Reynolds stars as Will Hayes, a divorced advertising executive who is steadfastly devoted to his 11-year-old daughter, Maya (Abigail Breslin). Ryan was passionately engaged with politics when he was in college, and so at first the story seems to be a familiar one about a guy who's lost his mojo and drifted into a life of corporate inertia.
Not quite. As Will begins to recount to Maya the tale of how he met her mother, we realize that he's a man who's been beaten and battered down by a cynical, dog-eat-dog world he once embraced wholeheartedly. His escape to advertising, it seems, is a desperate bid to salvage his soul.
This is the first of many clues that "Definitely, Maybe" is considerably more ambitious than the formulaic likes of "27 Dresses" or "Fool's Gold." As the film continues, and Will recounts the details of the three major relationships in his life, things only turn richer and more complicated.
Emily (Elizabeth Banks) is the college sweetheart Will left behind to go to work for the Bill Clinton presidential campaign in 1992. April (Isla Fisher) is the cynical-humored, free-spirited campaign office worker whom Will takes for granted as a friend. Summer (Rachel Weisz) is Emily's college friend, a savvy journalist who's willing to sacrifice her personal relationships in order to advance her career.
The hook of the movie is that Will doesn't initially tell Maya which of these three women became her mother. He changes all their names, and dares Maya to figure out who he ended up with. In truth, this framing device is the weakest thing about the movie, forcing a series of unnecessary and cloying interruptions into the main action. You can't help but wish that writer-director Adam Brooks had the courage to tell this story straight.
But that's a forgivable flaw in a movie that otherwise rings intelligent and deeply true. Brooks portrays people whose lives and personalities are deeply reflected in the work they do. He also shows us how, in real life, romances rarely have a simple three-act structure, but instead are apt to carry on for years, sometimes long after a break-up, as ex-lovers drifting into and out of each other's lives.
Most audacious of all: Brooks introduces into this story a provocative subtext about how the hopefulness of so many young people at the dawn of the Clinton era eventually soured, as the 1990s carried on and national politics turned uglier and more partisan. Will's career as a political consultant takes off, only to get brutally sabotaged by one of Summer's articles in New York magazine. And "Definitely, Maybe" gradually turns into an elegy for idealism, both political and personal. How silly it was of Will to believe in the possibility of a better tomorrow, when modern American life is infected by so much cynicism.
As Will, the tall, blond and handsome Reynolds is very likable, even if he doesn't quite have the dramatic chops to completely make us feel his character's frustration as one relationship after another dissolves into a puddle of disappointment and recrimination. Breslin fares less well: Probably no child actress could have pulled off the thankless part of Maya, but she still comes across too insistently emotive - a little girl trying too hard to pull on our heartstrings.
But the supporting cast - which also includes Derek Luke as Will's political consulting partner and Kevin Kline as the boozy intellectual and journalist who mentors Summer - is extraordinary. Fischer, Banks and especially Weisz give us a trio of complicated, conflicted women, all deeply flawed but all fundamentally decent.
What a treat to see a mainstream romance that doesn't need to make one female character a villain in order to uphold another as the heroine. When we do find out which woman is Maya's mother, and which Will might still have a shot at finding true happiness with, it's completely satisfying
And what a pleasure to see a movie this unhurried and eloquent - one that unfolds to the rhythms of everyday life. I walked out of "Definitely, Maybe" wondering if Will would be voting this primary season for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama - or if he feels so alienated from politics altogether that he will choose to sit things out this year.
That's how real and lived-in "Definitely, Maybe" feels - the characters live on in your imagination long after the closing credits have rolled. It's a terrific achievement.
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