A pleasingly non-formulaic romantic seriocomedy, “Definitely, Maybe” has charm and some depth, even if it’s ultimately more a third-base hit than a home run. Tale of a divorcing father relating his complicated romantic history to an inquisitive daughter will click with viewers for its refreshing indifference to current romantic-comedy fashions, being neither Judd Apatow-esque raunchy nor indie-edgy. With enough word-of-mouth momentum, potential sleeper could be the breakout film for Ryan Reynolds, who seems on the verge of major stardom. That’s a maybe, but writer-helmer Adam Brooks’ ingratiating will definitely have an extended run in ancillary.
Framing device has Reynolds as Wiliam Hayes, an advertising exec on the verge of finalizing his divorce with the mother of Maya (Abigail Breslin), of whom they have joint custody. When Will picks Maya up from school, he’s surprised that she’s just gotten her first, rather premature sex-ed lesson, and is full of embarrassing questions as a result. In particular, she insists dad tell her exactly how many women he went out with before mom, and how they came to be married. He reluctantly agrees, but tells this bedtime story with the names changed, so she’ll have to guess which character mom turns out to be.
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Subsequent flashback occupies nearly all of the runtime, occasionally broken by Maya’s inquiries and comments — which, being of that precious movie-kid nature, will for some rep the weakest element here.
Will’s romantic travails commence in Madison, Wis., where he’s leaving perfect college sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks) to spend two months in New York working on the 1992 Clinton campaign. She’s not happy about it, but he has grand ambitions — like becoming president one day himself — and is confident they can weather the separation. His first experiences in the big city are disillusioning, but eventually his talents are appreciated, his responsibilities elevated — and there are other sources of excitement, too, most notably friendships with two very attractive women.
There’s April (Isla Fisher), a defiantly apolitical, somewhat rudderless free spirit who works at campaign HQ for cash rather than the cause. Also a playful provocateur, albeit far more professionally driven, is aspiring journalist Summer (Rachel Weisz), a one-time schoolmate of Emily’s.
Will’s amorous fortunes weave unpredictably around these three women, as his career also goes through ups and downs. Brooks’ screenplay uses the political landscape of the (first?) Clinton era as a backdrop, getting some witty mileage out of its own ups and downs. But the primary focus is always on protag’s lovelife, which seems eternally plagued by instances of right girl/wrong moment, awkward conflicts of interest and so forth. Little Maya is kept guessing who her mom will be to the end.
Pic might have done better to close on a tentative, hopeful note a la “Sideways,” rather than going for the usual crowd-pleasing clinch that resolves everything too neatly. And some may find that Will’s bouncing among his three loves wears out its welcome around the 90-minute mark.
For the most part, though, “Definitely, Maybe” succeeds at being credible, amusing, bittersweet and intelligent — a “Manhattan”-esque exercise for twentysomethings that neither imitates Woody Allen (as so many do) nor goes the mumblecore route.
It helps that all leads are at their most appealing. Reynolds is in low-key form but still exerts deft comic timing; Weisz and Fisher sharply delineate characters that a more formulaic exercise might have simply turned into Quirky Girls 1 and 2. Banks is fine, though Emily winds up the least developed central figure. And Kevin Kline has a great time in a short but showy role as a famous political analyst; supporting cast is full of nice turns you’ll wish had more screentime.
A bit bland at first, production package warms up to pay suitable homage to the Big Apple as a character. All tech and design contributions are smooth.