A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 115 mins.

Ryan Reynolds: Will /  Isla Fisher: April / Derek Luke: Russell / Abigail Breslin: Maya / Elizabeth Banks: Emily / Rachel Weisz: Summer / Kevin Kline:  Hampton

Written and directed by Adam Brooks

After trudging through an endless number of dry, regurgitated, routine, and formulaic romantic comedies as of late, I found Adam Brooks’ DEFINITELY, MAYBE a real surprise as it injects some much needed life into this increasingly lethargic genre.  In terms of its approach to the material, the film is far more ambitious than recent witless dramadies (ahem…27 DRESSES), especially when it comes to its willingness to be bold, different, and to tell a love story in unconventional ways.  

DEFINITELY, MAYBE traverse along familiar territory, to be sure: We have plucky, spirited – yet flawed and likeable – characters that have obligatory “meet cutes”, fall in and out of love, and grow to appreciate life lessons involving relationships and commitment.  That is all here in abundance, but what Brooks does with it is  noticeably more sly and ingenious: Instead of the film – as most dramadies do – beginning with its main character meeting the love of his life and trying to win her over in the end, DEFINITELY, MAYBE starts in exact opposite manner.  It begins on a depressing note, showing a man who has just been served his divorce papers, and then the rest of the film is told like a murder mystery.  He tells his young daughter a bedtime story of three specific woman that were important in his life over the years, altering slight facts in the process.  The daughter – and the audience – is then forced to sift through all of the details to discover which of the three is the man’s ex. 

It’s a really intriguing method to write a script.  By framing most of the film as a recollection of one wounded man’s memories of his past flames, it garners our instant intrigue in the material and involves us in the story.  What’s so compelling here is that DEFINITELY, MAYBE does not concern itself with a "love conquers all" ideology, nor is it squeaky clean with its characters and interplay.  The film is more thoughtful and introspective and does a thankless job on commenting on how instant, true love is so hard to come by and that complicated love seems more realistic in life.  In a day and age when innumerable romantic dramadies seem so preordained in their stories, DEFINITELY, MAYBE soars higher in the way it outguesses the audience, which is to its ultimate merit.

Even more refreshing is the fact that it is told ostensibly from a male perspective, which I think is harder to nail correctly for these types of woman-centric films.  Usually, the men that populate them are seen as odd personas of contradictions.  Other comedies from the male perspective (even good ones like SUPERBAD and THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN) most of the male characters are chauvinistic pigs that see woman as sex objects first and then gravitate towards viewing them in a more decent light.  In DEFINITELY, MAYBE the main male character is shown as being much more complicated and inwardly flawed.  His emotional arc is also more substantial: he grows as a person and learns how love inevitably changes a person, sometimes for the worse, more often – and indirectly – for the better.  It’s rare to see films like this approach its men with such sincerity and compassion, not to mention that the underlining story is more filled with a melancholic sadness and disappointment than uplifting jubilation. 

As the film begins we meet Will Haynes (Ryan Reynolds, finally shaking off that annoying level of self-congratulatory smugness that has permeated his past comic performances) as he gets served with his divorce papers.  At this point we don’t know his wife.  He then picks up his daughter at school, Maya (played with a unparalleled level of innate cuteness, droll wit, and wide-eyed adorability by the talented Abigail Breslin).  As the two prepare for their evening together at home, Maya demands that her dad tell her a bedtime story.  Begrudgingly, Will agrees, but he is hesitant to give into his daughter’s wishes of telling her how he met her mother and how they fell in love.  

Nonetheless, Will is a good sport (all things considering), but he has put forth certain rules, such as the fact that names of people will be changed along with other minor details.  More crucially, his “story” will not simply involve Maya’s mother, but three women, which forces Maya – and us – to put all of the clues together to discover which of the women is the real ex-wife.   Maya is distraught about her dad’s emotional state with the impending divorce, but she is a beacon of hope, thinking that this bedtime story will help her father perhaps overcome his marital problems and get back together with his soon-to-be ex-wife. 

The first woman of the story is Emily (the luminous and gorgeous Elizabeth Banks, whose smile – like Jennifer Garner’s – could take any man's pain away).  She is Will’s college sweetheart that he leaves behind in 1992 so he can trek to The Big Apple to work as a campaign worker for, yes, Bill Clinton in his bid for the White House.  Through Emily he eventually hooks up with Summer (Rachel Weisz, who finally has her assets used to good effect in a comedy), who used to not only be a past friend of Emily’s, but her ex-experimental lover.  At the time Summer is dating her thesis advisor and famous author, Hampton Roth (played in a pitch perfectly droll and sarcastic performance by Kevin Kline).  And last, Will hooks up with a fellow Clinton co-worker, April (the underrated Isla Fisher, who is one of those rare, Meg Ryan-esque actresses that can effectively balance cuteness, below the radar sex appeal, and swift comic timing).  As the story progresses we see Will go back and forth between the women over the years, not to mention that less consequential woman show up here and there, making it even more difficult for Maya to piece together which woman is really her mother. 

Like a great mystery, DEFINITELY, MAYBE does an incredibly assured job dropping hints here and there and never easily allows Maya and viewers to ascertain her real mother’s identity.  Rarely does the film ring with a sanctimonious predictability; even when May’s mother is finally revealed, it’s never clear how this film will really end.  Will the man live a life of solitude, or will he rekindle a love with one of the two remaining women of the story?  Even late in the film, as it was a approaching a conclusion, it was tricky to see where it was heading.  And when it does end, it’s not one of those neat, convenient ends with resounding closure and false hope.  Will has lost the love of his life, but does not regain it back, per se, as well.  Instead, he makes the realization that love can be a destabilizing and thorny influence in one’s life and that he have to work diligently at it to make it succeed.  Again, it’s that plausible emotional spectrum in the film that allows for DEFINITELY, MAYBE to be more atypically engaging and real that these types of films usually allow for. 

The performances are also key, and Ryan Reynold’s displays a sort of earnestness, compassion, and amiability, which is delicate considering that he plays Will at the broadest states (from eager go-getter and hopeless idealist to lonely and nihilistic).  This is arguably his finest performance, which helps shred away past indiscretions like the irreproachably bad NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VAN WILDER.  Breslin is effortlessly delightful and endearing, Weisz and Banks are collectively decent as Will’s other two romantic interests (Weisz is  effectively subtle in many moments that pay off, like one instance where she reacquaints Will to one of his past loves), but it’s Isla Fisher that is the real standalone actress in this film and she's able to command a quirky and madcap personality with April while displaying a more inwardly subjugated sadness and regret.  Her work here is funny, feisty, and oftentimes touching.  

DEFINITELY, MAYBE has a few weak spots.  For starters, Reynolds – despite giving a career making performance – is never physically credible playing a man that's pushing 40 (do the arithmetic: the film begins in 2008, then shows him in his early 20’s in 1992 – a 16-year-span – and he shows no apparent level of aging, if you excuse hairstyle and clothing).  The same applies for the other women, who look essentially identical after a nearly two-decade span.  Also, some of the supporting characters are weakly developed, as is the case with Derek Luke as Will’s friend and fellow campaign worker.  Also, the motivations of Summer with her sabotaging a candidate that Will is later working for seems a bit ill defined.

Beyond small criticisms, DEFINITELY, MAYBE has everything that I desire in a great romantic dramady, most notably attractive and agreeable characters with wonderful chemistry mixed with generous and equal amounts of bitter sweetness, warmth, hearty laughs, and genuineness.  It goes even beyond that by engaging in some sleight of hand tricks with its storyline, which manages to avoid the pratfalls of dumb clichés, moronic contrivances, and dopey and teeth grating sentimentality.  In the end, I loved its daringness with not being ubiquitously warm and fuzzy; it’s a complicated and intelligent film for the way it does not condescend or try to cheaply tug heartstrings.  This is head and shoulders ahead of the pack of recent stale offerings of pap-infested, romantic dribble that succeeds at being delightfully different. 

In short, this film is definitely very good…and maybe...just maybe…truly great.

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