February 14, 2008

Definitely, Maybe

I hear you're dating Scarlett Johannson,
so don't you think I'm a little old for you?

Grade: B +
Director: Adam Brooks
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Isla Fisher, Derek Luke, Abigail Breslin, Rachel Weisz, Elizabeth Banks, and Kevin Kline
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Before its overextended, over-schmaltzy final act transforms it into this decade’s Jerry Maguire (“You complete me” could theoretically follow most sentences spoken during the last 15 minutes), Definitely, Maybe reminds you of the sort of film Woody Allen should be making nowadays. It marries sublime casting with smart characterizations and a modern-day zeitgeist that compliments, not devours, the storyline. It might not be on the level of When Harry Met Sally, but it definitely, certainly reminds you that producing a romantic-comedy of that ilk is still possible.

An explanation of “how I met your mother” literally turns into a bedtime story when young sprite Maya (Abigail Breslin), fresh off a grade-school primer on sex education, coerces her dad, Will (Ryan Reynolds), into telling the tale behind her mom and dad’s coupling, now on the eve of their divorce. Will’s journey dates back to 1992 when he leaves his Madison, Wisconsin hometown to work as a political consultant (and part-time gopher) in the 1992 New York City campaign office for then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton.

A whodunit shell game ensues, with the maternal candidates centering on three likely choices – high school sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks), effete magazine journalist Summer Hartley (a radiant Rachel Weisz), and spunky gal-pal April (Isla Fisher). Over the ensuing decade, we watch as Will’s life vacillates between episodes of seduction and heartbreak, both personally (with the women in this life) and professionally (through the travails of the Clinton presidency).

Reynolds proves the able glue holding together the entire production, funneling his wiseacre shtick into a leading man who exudes masculine charm, vulnerability, and foibles. What is most stunning is he manages to cultivate credible onscreen chemistry with three different actresses (four if you count Breslin) representing three very different women, all without straining the bounds of believability or abandoning Will’s core personality.

There is seemingly a new delight emerging around every corner during the film’s first half, including Will’s political buddy played by Derek Luke and Kevin Kline as a author-cum-college professor beset with a half-tanked cynicism and penchant for bedding his freshman literary students, including Summer at one time. They all navigate a 1990s tableau – perhaps the first devout cinematic examination of the decade – in which everyone seems to enjoy boundless professional and economic success but still lacks a cohesive identity.

Writer-director Adam Brooks brings to bear an intelligence and wit not found in his previous two screenplays, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Wimbledon. If there is a critique, it is that the storyline unwisely extends past the big reveal – you had me at “Mommy” – and into a contorted epilogue desperately seeking some formulaic, fairy tale finale. Brooks should have trusted the maturity of his script, not narrative gimmicks and mawkish sentiment, to carry the film across the finish-line. While uniformly good, whether Definitely, Maybe is a great movie ultimately depends on which part you are watching, or, to quote a former president, “on what the definition of ‘is’ is.”

Neil Morris

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