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.
B- (1 hr., 50 min.; )