“Definitely, Maybe,” directed by Adam Brooks, is surprisingly the perfect antidote to the winter blues. Though it’s no “When Harry Met Sally,” and its star, Ryan Reynolds, is known more for his relationship with Scarlett Johansson than his films, it will warm your heart and might even restore your faith in the lackluster romantic comedy genre.
At the film’s start we meet Will Hayes (Reynolds), a thirty-something Manhattan ad-exec (of course) who has just been served divorce papers. Romantic comedies always seem to begin with some catchy tune and “Definitely, Maybe” is no different, but this time Will puts on his headphones and moves through a silent Manhattan. This silence is abruptly interrupted when he picks up his daughter, Maya (“Little Miss Sunshine” Abigail Breslin), from school and finds hordes of pre-teens frantically shouting due to a sex talk given to 11-year-olds. Now that Maya has learned about the birds and the bees, she’s ready to talk about those big issues of love and relationships, namely her father’s experiences and the story of how he met her mother before things went sour.
Begrudgingly, Will agrees to share the story, but changes the names to turn it into what Maya calls “a romantic mystery” for his daughter to uncover. Most of the film centers around these flashbacks to the ’90s where Will’s love life is more than just a little complicated due to the three imperfect but alluring women that enter his life. First there is Will’s college sweetheart, the prototypical girl next door Emily (Elizabeth Banks), who refuses to move to New York with him. While working on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, he meets April (Isla Fisher), the free-spirited copy girl with a penchant for Nirvana (a band Will is somehow unaware of), and Emily’s friend Summer, a wannabe writer involved with her eccentric, Scotch-drinking thesis professor, Hampton Roth (Kevin Kline). Will and these three women will keep stumbling in and out of each other’s lives as they fall in and out of love or miss out on it entirely.
Ryan Reynolds has boyish good looks and enough charm to sustain his role throughout the film. It’s easy to see why these women would be so drawn to him and why he is able to so easily fall in love with them. It’s nice to see him in something a little bit more grown up — not that he didn’t show some serious acting talent in “Van Wilder.”
Abigail Breslin plays the usual 11-year-old going on 50. She’s a bit annoying at the start, what with her repeatedly shouting “penis vagina” in the apartment building. Yes, she just learned about the miracle of life, but no, those words aren’t really that funny anymore.
What makes “Definitely, Maybe” succeed is that it teeters off the path of the neatly contrived structure of the typical romantic comedy. Of course we will still leave the theater feeling confident that true love is possible and everything will work out fine in the end, but this time we are assured that love is messy and second chances are a must. It’s this kind of honesty and a refusal to cater to the typical idealistic fantasies of marriage mixed in with a touch of crude humor that make it easy to forgive any of the movie’s shortcomings.
It may be past Valentine’s Day, but this isn’t one of those romances you need an excuse to see. It’s an enlightened film that remains grounded in reality, while sustaining the genre’s optimistic tone. Lately, romantic comedies have become synonymous with guilty pleasures, but this time you “definitely” won’t feel bad about being charmed by it.