Eric D. Snider

Definitely, Maybe

Movie Review

Definitely, Maybe

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: B-

Released: February 14, 2008

 

Directed by:

Cast:

As regular readers may have noticed, my chief complaint about romantic comedies is that they tend to follow the same template, with no variation from the usual plotline. This puts me at odds with many members of the target audience, who view the genre's sameness as a virtue. They find comfort in the way every rom-com uses the same plot devices and character types. I suppose it's akin to re-watching a beloved film when you need an emotional boost, only instead of watching the same movie repeatedly you watch a different one that happens to be essentially the same as the others.

Anyway, when I respond positively to a romantic comedy, it's usually because it follows the regular formula with more wit or charisma than usual, or because it actually deviates from the prescribed path. "Definitely, Maybe" has a little of both elements. It's slightly sophisticated, rather smart, and not too manipulative. Moreover, it's just unconventional enough in its structure to pique my interest, while still hewing close to the basic elements that rom-com fans expect.

The gimmick is that Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds), a soon-to-be-divorced ad man, is telling his daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) the story of how he met her mother. He had three women in his life back in those days, and he changes their names as he tells the tale so that Maya won't know until the end which one turned out to be Mom.

Cute idea, right? The execution is a little implausible, as the way Maya eventually figures it out is by recognizing a visual detail that Will surely didn't mention in his narrative; she'd have to have SEEN the story, like we do. But that is the logician in me talking, and the logician in me needs to shut up sometimes.

Will's story starts in 1992, when he moves to New York for two months to work on Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. He has a girlfriend, Emily (Elizabeth Banks), back in Wisconsin, whom he plans to marry. But in the meantime he meets two other women: Summer (Rachel Weisz), a writer who's dating her too-old-for-her college professor (Kevin Kline); and April (Isla Fisher), a free-spirited fellow campaign worker who's apathetic about politics and digs this new Kurt Cobain fellow everyone's been talking about.

His story, occasionally interrupted by Maya's interjections (she can't believe her daddy used to smoke cigarettes!), spans much of the '90s, with Emily, Summer, and April all coming in and out of his life at various times. I give credit to writer/director Adam Brooks (who wrote "Wimbledon" and "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason"): He kept me guessing which of the women would turn out to be Maya's mother right up to the end. It's a welcome feeling, considering most rom-coms' "dilemmas" boil down to "Should I choose the woman who's nice to me, or the one who's a total b-word?" These women are all reasonable choices for Will, with no obvious frontrunner, and the three actresses each have their own brand of chemistry with Reynolds (who has always been much better than the movies he's in).

Where I think the film goes a little wrong is in the end, after Maya learns which of the three pseudonymous women in Will's story turns out to be her mother. There's a bittersweet element to the way things stand at that point, with a touching note of daddy-daughter affection. And then Brooks chickens out, hedges his bets, and tacks on an extra 10 minutes to ensure everything turns out rosier than it would have. I think he should have quit while he was ahead -- but I bet the real rom-com fans will disagree with me there.

Grade: B-

Rated PG-13, moderate profanity, clinical discussions of sexuality, some vulgarity

1 hr., 50 min.

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This item has 9 comments

  1. Steve says:

    So how do you pronounce 'pseudonymous'?

  2. B says:

    I guess somebody decided to turn "How I met your Mother" into a movie. Needs more Neil Patrick Harris, though.

  3. LittleWoodenBoy says:

    @ Steve

    sū-dŏn'ə-məs

  4. BeeDub says:

    My problems with the rom-com genre are legion, but I have to ask: is it really true that the people (OK, women) who love them not only don't mind their unoriginal, repetitive nature, but actually prefer it? Have rom-com audiences really grown so attached to formula that they'll spurn any filmmaker's attempt to do something truly different?

    To be fair, many male-oriented movies follow strict formulas as well (e.g., the James Bond movies). However, in my experience, males are more willing to voice disapproval of movies aimed at them that turn out to be bad than women are of theirs. Is there something to this? Or am I just being an over-analytical jackass (as usual)?

  5. Peter says:

    "The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforeseen.. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end yet you listen as though you don't. In the way that you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won't. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic."

    "The God of Small Things," Arundhati Roy, p. 217

  6. dave says:

    But perhaps there are more great stories out there to find...

  7. John Doe says:

    What Peter wrote sounds good, but it's really not as deep as it wants to be. I'd compare Rom-coms (or "Great Stories" as Arundhati calls it) to comfort food. It tastes good and it reminds you of home, but it's not healthy and having it too often robs it of it's special place in your life. Refusing to try new things (food, movies, or stories) stagnates your growth as a person and prevents you from experiencing the variety and spice life has to offer. As dave wrote, you never know what other great stories may be out there if you just stay in your rut.

    This movie sounds good, based on Eric's description. I usually don't like Rom-coms because it's usually about women leaving the bland guy they've known for years to be with the exciting guy they met 24 hours ago (or they haven't physically met at all, in some cases). It's like they glory in the idea that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence (and then we wonder why divorce is so high). Or it's like Eric said, they finally decide to go with the obviously better guy instead of staying with the loser. And there's always the obligatory "secret" or "lie" so the two lovers will leave each other, only to be reunited in the end. What I really hate is that the "secret" is usually really dumb and no real person would honestly be offended by it (at least not any person I'd want to be married to).

  8. Lori in NYC says:

    Eric, you are the ONLY critic I can find who voices an opinion similar to mine that this movie could have been exponentially better had it ended 10 minutes earlier! I don't know if we can blame Brooks for this. Could be the producers made Brooks tack on that "happy ending" after Maya learns that in life things don't always turn out the way you want them to... She wails for a minute and we should have faded to black to take a moment while our tears quelled... but alas, the little princess is granted her romantic fantasy-wish and her Daddy is magically transported to the land of true love (Brooklyn!). Ugh. Chickens. All of them.

    John Doe, most genre-stories follow the template and conventions that designate what makes that genre, a genre in the first place.

    Western: Something bad happens. Laconic former gunslinger/lawman is persuaded to pick up his gun one last time, and rides into town to set things straight. Shootout at high noon.
    Detective: Something bad happens. Laconic hard-boiled ex-cop with current or former drinking problem (caused by someone close to him having been killed due to his own fumbling) is persuaded to solve one last case. Shootout at midnight.
    Gangster: Laconic youth commits robbery/burglary/scam successfully. Builds crime empire and becomes overly-confident boss. Former partner/minion opens his own "shop." Shootout during dinner.
    War: Something bad happens. Laconic soldier is sent on mission to foil enemy plans. Soldier is nearly caught/killed/stopped but manages to overcome. Shootout at sunrise.
    Science Fiction: Something bad happens. Laconic starman blasts into the galaxy to set things straight. Shootout at moonrise.
    Celebrity Biopic: Laconic youth from humble beginnings displays uncharacteristically uninhibited talent when opportunity presents itself. Lover/spouse/parent/shyster manages early career until person becomes star, then lover/spouse/parent/shyster is dumped for higher level lover/spouse/parent/shyster-- I mean manager. Star burns out. Is eventually persuaded to perform one last time. Shoots up three times daily.
    Heist: Former bank robber/jewel-theif/scam artist is approached by former lover/spouse/parent/shyster-- I mean partner, and persuaded to pull "one last heist... "

    See any repetition here?

  9. John Doe says:

    Nothing wrong with following a template, unless that template is dumb. The "break up for a dumb reason only to get back together at the end" is dumb. So is the "I'm going to leave behind the guy I'm engaged to because I just met a fun guy 24 hours ago."

    "10 Things I Hate about You" (based on "The Taming of the Shrew"), "Drive Me Crazy", "You've Got Mail," and "2 Weeks Notice" are the Rom-coms I like (if those even qualify). The template is the same, but few people would watch them and say they are the exact same movie. Unfortunately, most other Rom-coms I've seen are the exact same movie over and over, just like Eragon is Star Wars.

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