Sunday, February 17, 2008

Definitely, Maybe / *** (PG-13)

Will Hayes: Ryan Reynolds
Maya Hayes: Abigail Breslin
Emily: Elizabeth Banks
April: Isla Fisher
Summer: Rachel Weisz
Hampton Roth: Kevin Kline

Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Adam Brooks. Running time: 112 min. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content, including some frank dialogue, language and smoking).

Divorce is ugly and complicated, especially when a child is involved. But as much as children understand things like love and family on a basic level, even adults tend to view these things simply unless they really step back and look at them. So it is no surprise that Hollywood so often turns to worn-out templates for stories of romance. This is why a movie like “Definitely, Maybe” is such a surprise. It is a delightful and fresh observation of the ways in which people can fall in and out of love with each other, and how our initial dreams and goals can both hold us back and lead in directions beyond our control.

The story begins with a well-intentioned miscalculation by a New York City public school. When Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds, “Just Friends”) shows up to pick up his daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine”) one afternoon, he is met with a scene of chaos and terror suggesting that something horrible has just happened. The atrocity in question is sex education given to students perhaps too young to handle it. This leads Maya to grill her father on the technical details of her own conception. However, Will is in the process of divorcing Maya’s mother and is not keen on the idea of perpetuating the memories of their love for his daughter.

Maya persists, so Will decides to tell her the story of the three women in his life that he truly loved. He changes the names and some facts, and Maya must figure out which woman is her mother. He tells her about Emily (Elizabeth Banks, “Invincible”), his college sweetheart with whom he made “a life plan” before leaving for New York to work as a speech writer on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign; April (Isla Fisher, “Wedding Crashers”), who worked as the photocopy girl at campaign headquarters but held no political views of her own and with whom Will became fast friends; and a writer named Summer (Rachel Weisz, “The Constant Gardner”), who was once a friend of Emily’s, and when Will met her was the girlfriend of an eccentric English professor played by Kevin Kline (“A Prairie Home Companion”).

As Will tells his story, he stumbles into some adult pitfalls when relating situations that fall beyond a child’s security clearance.

Maya: What’s a threesome?
Will: It’s a game that adults play sometimes… When they’re bored.
Maya: …Whatever.

He shocks her with details about things adults should not do. She discovers that he used to smoke and drink. He describes life way back in 1992, “before cell phones and e-mail.” And he waxes nostalgic about the lost political landscape of the ‘90’s, before he realized its corruption and its relative innocence compared to what the next decade would bring. His recollection of throwing his dinner at the television when watching Clinton try to dodge “what the definition of ‘is’ is” was very similar to mine at the time.

Writer/director Adam Brooks, whose previous credits include writing “Wimbledon” and directing “The Invisible Circus”, does a wonderful job keeping the script intelligent. He doesn’t dumb down Will’s story because he is telling it to a child. Nor does he vilify any of the women. They are who they are; and for an intelligent man such as Will, they provide intelligent counterparts and varying world views. Emily has more layers than her pure projection first suggests. Summer is a unique woman who forms unique but loving relationships with at least two of the men in her life. And April seems to be as much the object of Brooks’s affection as she is the center of Will’s. The fact that Brooks spends more time with April may seem to suggest a predictable conclusion, but Brooks doesn’t confuse sentimental love with the gravity of the events that unfold. The answer to Maya’s mystery of which woman is her mother is as complex as the relationships that develop between Will and these three women.

The performances are equally complex and intelligent. Reynolds continues to prove he has the chops to carry a film, this time utilizing his skills as both a comedian and a dramatic actor. None of the women oversell either their romantic strengths or weaknesses. Banks isn’t given a whole lot to work with as Emily, but her choices are believable. Fisher is instantly likeable as April, the friend many men have who is cherished in a way that romantic pursuit could destroy. Weisz has the most difficult job as Summer, who must show how she loves two very different men in very different ways. Maya doesn’t want Summer to be her mother, but that doesn’t rule her out.

Thankfully, Brooks does not try to flower up divorce for an audience looking to be entertained. Romantic comedies tend to oversimplify relationship problems to serve a plot that people might expect. I feared a happy ending would be forced into the plot, but I was pleasantly surprised, not only because the plot did not turn toward a typical happy ending but also because the smart ending was still happy and satisfying for a romance.

“Definitely, Maybe” is not a great movie, but it is a good one. It is about being happy with the choices you’ve made, but it doesn’t try to suggest that everyone is. It isn’t a heavy movie, nor is it a cheery romp. If perhaps it plays its game a little safe, it avoids becoming something dark and depressing. It doesn’t overplay the drama or the comedy. I’d like to see a similar film from the woman’s point of view, looking at three of her past lovers. Something like that could become painful for us male viewers, but I hope it would walk the same understanding path as this film.


Alan Bacchus said...

Bravo. Well-written critique. An interesting companion film might be "High Fidelity" - John Cusack ruminating on his top 5 break-ups? It's played more light Cusack-comedy, but I had thoughts of this while watching Definitely Maybe.

Andrew D. Wells said...

Yes, it would be. What's also interesting is that although "High Fidelity" is by far the superior film, "Definitely, Maybe" is the more grown up of the two, character-wise.