Title: Definitely, Maybe
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Director: Adam Brooks
Screenwriters: Adam Brooks
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Rachel Weisz, Abigail Breslin
Ignore the banal, mostly meaningless title, because Definitely, Maybe is nothing like the nondescript rom-com its moniker suggests. In fact, it’s one of 2008’s first great surprises, the rare mainstream film with the cojones to mess with romantic comedy conventions and expand the genre’s usual diminutive scope. It uses the rom-com as a lens through which to look at its protagonist’s entire life, an approach that turns out to be not nearly as reductive as it sounds. And in the process of delivering an honest, earnest crowdpleaser, it gets at some real truths about being young and growing up.
The film’s buzz, to the extent it has any, has centered on the structural gimmick: a young girl (Abigail Breslin) whose parents are going through a divorce asks her father (Ryan Reynolds) to tell her the story of how he met her mom. Dad, exasperated, agrees to tell the story of his romantic past, but insisting that he will change the names “and some of the facts,” leaving it up to the kid to guess which of his on-again, off-again relationships brought her about. That begins a lengthy flashback, taking Reynolds’ Will from an ambitious, fresh-out-of-college neophyte to a seasoned professional and about-to-be-single father, with occasional interruptions from the inquisitive little girl.
The present-day interludes don’t work quite as well as they should, because their somewhat cutesy aw-shucks quality is an intrusion on the thoughtful main story. But I am nonetheless grateful to the framing device for broadening the film’s horizons. Romantic comedies, as a rule, are hopelessly insular: the two leads are meant for each other by virtue of being the two leads, and whether or not they get together is, as far as the movie is concerned, the question of the century (the answer to which is invariably “yes”). Definitely, Maybe provides Will with three attractive possibilities — the kind, understanding “Emily” (Elizabeth Banks), the flighty and free-spirited “April” (Isla Fisher), and the ambitious “Summer” (Rachel Weisz) — but is smart enough to recognize that life goes on even if things don’t work out with any or even all of them. They get together, break up, go their separate ways, and meet again as Will’s life and career take him to and fro.
The film is smart enough, too, to give Will dimensions over and above his relationships with the women in his life. He has his own ambitions and even his politics. He begins as a hapless staffer on the Clinton campaign, meeting a rude awakening as his hopes of being quickly “discovered” and hailed for his brilliance are dashed by, among other things, the campaign’s toilet paper needs. But the cream rises to the top, and there’s a wonderful scene where Will, in a pinch, manages to sell an entire table at a $10,000-a-plate fundraiser — the movie is as wide-eyed and eager as its protagonist in that moment, and it conveys a sense of what it’s like to be young and full of promise, with the world seemingly at your feet.
Disappointments soon mix with the triumphs, but Definitely, Maybe keeps perspective. There are no hysterics here; Will deals with his ruts, sometimes with a little help from his friends, and moves on. Meanwhile, the film actually manages to generate some more superficial suspense about whom Will wound up marrying, but it also makes the stakes clear — no matter what, Will tells his daughter, she is the story’s happy ending.
Unfortunately, there is a tacked-on ending involving Will showing up hopefully at the door of the girl he is, we take it, Meant For. It’s a disappointing concession to the sort of mindless fancy that usually plagues the genre (see also the screeplay’s obsession with a particular inscribed copy of Jane Eyre), though it too winds up a bit more thoughtful than you’d expect. At least the divorce plot doesn’t turn out to be the head fake I had feared.
If there’s a more serious problem, it’s that Ryan Reynolds is maybe too much of a lightweight for this role. He’s not a bad actor by any means, but the role requires the character to age, mature, climb the career ladder, have his heart broken; to lose his way and find it again. It’s a demanding part, and while Reynolds does a passable job, he’s not always capable of the nuance it requires.
The movie, surprisingly, doesn’t suffer much for it, maybe because Banks, Fisher and Weisz (and Breslin too) have so much personality, or because the screenplay has so much depth and charm. Definitely, Maybe is what happens when someone decides to make a romantic comedy, then sits down and thinks about it for a while before setting out to write.