Friday, February 15, 2008

Definitely, Maybe (**)

Written and Directed by Adam Brooks


Call it the Valentine's Day attitude inside of me, but I essentially liked Definitely, Maybe as much as you can like a two-star film. It was charming, the emotions swayed me, and it wasn't the kind of romantic film sap that thinks you're stupid enough to think it's real. Somewhat like my reaction to the surprisingly good Dan In Real Life. The only difference between those two films, though, is that Dan had the wonderfully sincere Steve Carell, who is an unbelievably underrated actor in his own right. This film is left with Ryan Reynolds who, despite giving his most mature performance of his career, still seems like he's wearing a suit too tight for him the whole film.

I like the idea of people going to see this during the Valentine's Day Weekend (if there is such a thing). It's a romance with subplots of family and children, and contains the wonderfully talented child actress Abigail Breslin. It's a film that is easily passed off as a "chick flick". I would disagree with that for two reasons. For one, the term "chick flick" is one of horrendous sexism, but also because this film totally and fully deals with the emotional feelings of a man.

That man is Will Hayes (Reynolds) who is coaxed by his young, precocious daughter Maya (Breslin) to tell her the story of how he met her mother, and fell in love with her. Will, whether out of boredom or fear, decides to tell Maya the story of the three true loves of his life. He will change the names of all the women, and never tell her which one is her mother exactly, so she can figure it out on her own. It's not the greatest job of parenting (Will and Maya's mother are about to be divorced), but we get sucked into the atmosphere rather quickly.

A majority of the film is told in flashback, and we meet all the women firsthand. First, there's Emily (Elizabeth Banks), Will's college sweetheart, who fears Will would change when he left to New York City to work on Clinton's presidential campaign. He goes to the world of 1991 New York City, where he meets a snappy copy girl named April (Isla Fisher), who will factor in a bit, later in the story. There is also Summer (Rachel Weisz), Emily's former college roommate, who is shacked up with an old, spirited, alcoholic college professor (a delightful cameo performance by Kevin Kline).

Throughout the film, Will weaves himself in and out of relationships with these three women, but also climbs the ladder in his job. He goes from being the guy who gets toilet paper and coffee for the Clinton campaign, to the head speech writer for the leading senatorial candidate of New York City. The setting of the early nineties does little to nothing for the film other than to crack sarcastic jokes about future notorious activities of Clinton, and other minor ironies ("You've never heard of Kurt Cobain!?" April tells Will). Will has a friend named Russell (Derek Luke), who is a puzzling character since we're not sure if he's the stereotypical silly, but earnest friend, or the black stereotypical silly, but earnest friend (one says "dude", the other says "yo"; Russell says both in varying tones).

There are things in the flashback which border on nonsensical, and things we hope are not included in the version he is verbally telling Maya. There is a conversation between Weisz and Kline which he should have no recall of since he wasn't in the room. And also, the film depends on highly remarkable events for the story to move forward--twice, Will tries to propose to one of the women, and twice the relationship is torn apart just moments before. The flashbacks become so swindling that we forget the story of Maya, who is the most intriguing aspect of the story. She's a young girl, who wants a story of love before her family crumbles, but instead we get more and more of the love triangles (or whatever geometric shape is applicable to Will's situation).

Ryan Reynolds is competent as Will, but I just can't shake the feeling that he was in over his head. Reynolds is earnest enough, and it's nice to see him trying something that doesn't require him to be a dumb college guy (Van Wilder, Buying The Cow). It's a man's role, and a brave one at that in Reynolds' case, and perhaps in a more fitting role, Reynolds can fit a bit better. In this, though, he relies a little too much on dashing looks and pouts. He's also upstaged by the 11-year-old Breslin, who counters her Oscar-nominated role in Little Miss Sunshine with a performance which is a little more kiddy, but still just as drawing. It's easy for a child's performance to be mistaken as great with the work of great editing, but Breslin didn't fool us twice.

Before the film started, I saw numerous trailers including those for films that I'm eager to see: The Other Boleyn Girl, Smart People, and Baby Mama. I remember all those trailers, and the anticipation I felt when I saw them, and I don't know if Definitely, Maybe had the same effect. It's a light film, with performances that are not particularly great, but honest. You can see that everyone who worked on it had fun with the light material, and because of that you do actually care about what happens to Will and Maya in the end. So, is it a particularly charming movie? Definitely. Should you go right out and see it? Maybe.

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