Ryan Reynolds and Abigail Breslin in Definitely, Maybe
“I like it. It’s like a mystery romance.”
Abigail Breslin with Ryan Reynolds in Definitely, Maybe

I steer well clear of most modern romantic comedies. It’s not that there is no romance in me, it’s that there’s no romance in the movies themselves. Mostly they serve up smarmy, insipid gruel that repulses and offends rather than enlightens or entertains. You know, lowest common denominator twaddle dumbed down for suckers or the comatose.

With that in mind, a comedy/romance with a cutesy title like Definitely, Maybe seemed destined to piss me off. Perhaps you can see why I’m a little surprised to report that, not only was I not annoyed, the film actually won me over.

Yes, Definitely, Maybe is essentially weightless, but it’s also charming and sweet. Plus it has a few tricks up its sleeve that make it smarter than the average film of its type and set it apart from the crowd.

The first is the story hook. Rather than a traditional meet-cute, break up, get back together romance, this one begins near the end as Will, a successful New York political consultant played by Ryan Reynolds, receives his final divorce papers. Meanwhile, his 10-year-old daughter Maya (Little Miss Sunshine‘s Abigail Breslin) receives her first sex education lesson, suddenly piquing her interest in the bizarre world of adult relationships. When Will picks her up after school for their weekend together, she’s armed with endless questions about her father’s romantic past and in particular how he fell in love with her mother and why they’re getting divorced. He agrees to tell her the whole messy story with the caveat that he’s going to change the names and leave it up to Maya (and us) to figure out which woman he eventually married. It is, as Maya says, something of a mystery romance told in flashback.

It’s a premise that allows the movie to run the gamut of romantic setups and it’s in these that Definitely, Maybe puts it’s likeable cast to good use and really starts to rise above the rest. For his part, Reynolds is handsome if a bit unspectacular. He was pretty good on TV (Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place) and he handles light comedy well, but I’m not convinced he has the wattage yet to be a big screen romantic lead. Still, he’s good enough to play off the terrific female cast, all of whom really shine.

The first one is blonde Elizabeth Banks (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), Will’s college sweetheart whom he leaves behind for a few months in 1992 to go work on the presidential primary campaign of a candidate named Bill Clinton. Next is brunette Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardner, The Fountain), a liberal, free-spirited journalist and best of all is red-headed Isla Fisher (Wedding Crashers), Will’s apolitical best friend. All of these women move in and out of Will’s romantic life at different points in the story and you genuinely root for each one. They might not approach the depth of flesh and blood human beings, but they’re interesting enough in their defined types. Each actress brings her own energy into play and they all have good chemistry with Reynolds.

Not to be overlooked, Abigail Breslin is cute, but not terminally so as Maya. She plays a convincing 10-year-old without stooping to the smart mouthed precociousness that so often infects movie children. Also, Kevin Kline has an amusing supporting part as a drunken, rabble-rousing author.

The finishing touch on Definitely, Maybe that ultimately elevated it for me was how Will’s love life sort of parallels the ups and downs of the Clinton presidency. The disillusionment Will ultimately feels in the man he worked so hard for dovetails his disappointment with a romantic life that doesn’t play out like he once dreamed it would. It’s a subtle layer and not especially profound, but it’s a nice little grace note to an already engaging story and helps hold the whole thing together.

It’s true, the story isn’t exactly a roller coaster of unpredictability. You can see the resolution coming a mile away, but I have to admit it threw me off the scent more than once and it at least caused me to second guess my suspicions. Basically, the movie casts just enough doubt at each turn to cover its tracks if you let it and that’s enough. The mystery isn’t the point really, it’s just the hook and it works.

Though it might not always be surprising, Definitely, Maybe has a knack for tapping into the rhythms of life and the way things and people and circumstances change. It shows how sometimes we meet the right people, but at the wrong time and how it takes a combination of persistence and luck to make a relationship work. It’s not revolutionary, but it adds up to a modest, untraditional and very likeable love story that should appeal to anyone who has ever been in love or who wishes they were. Yes, even a cynic like me.

Definitely, Maybe. USA 2008. Written and directed by Adam Brooks. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Derek Luke and Kevin Kline. 1 hour 45 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13 for sexual content, including some frank dialogue language and smoking. 3.5 stars (out of 5)

17 Responses to “Review: Definitely, Maybe (2008) *** 1/2”

  1. The trailer wasn’t bad, and that’s a wonderful ensemble of women. I could see myself seeing this if it ever comes to my town (sad that even this seems to be above my local theatre.)

  2. Curses, I can’t find anyone with a negative reaction to this movie. Meaning, I can’t find any reason not to see what I originally called Definitely, Not, but I still don’t think I’ll make it to a theater…

  3. I have to say, from the trailer it looked like it was going to suck. And the little girl looked like she’d be completely annoying.

    Maybe I’ll give this one a try. Like you, I’ll probably see something else and then sneak in.

  4. The little girl does seem annoying, movies so rarely get children right.

  5. Don’t you hate it when you can’t use a good review title Daniel?

    Abigail was fine, though I have to admit I’m one of those weirdos who didn’t hate Little Miss Sunshine.

    She’s not necessarily the focal point of the movie like she is the trailer. Most of it is the flashbacks until the story catches up to itself at the end.

  6. Well Craig, you’ve really confounded my expectations with regards the film. Not so much though that I’d pay to see it in a theatre, but DVD remains a possibility.

    What most struck me was the quality of your writing. The review pleasingly flows and shows off a fine turn of phrase and astute observations.

    Among the lines that stood out for me were ‘basically, the movie casts just enough doubt at each turn to cover its tracks if you let it and that’s enough’ and ‘though it might not always be surprising, Definitely, Maybe has a knack for tapping into the rhythms of life and the way things and people and circumstances change.

    And the review really scales the heights when you identify the parallel between his experience of Clinton and his love life, ‘the disillusionment Will ultimately feels in the man he worked so hard for dovetails his disappointment with a romantic life that doesn’t play out like he once dreamed it would. It’s a subtle layer and not especially profound, but it’s a nice little grace note to an already engaging story and helps hold the whole thing together’.

    Bravo.

  7. Thanks Sartre, now imagine my future embarrassment and humiliation if you see the move and hate it. Heh heh.

    But seriously, you could probably live a long healthy life without seeing this one. It’s not essential, but it’s a still a nice enough entry in a tedious genre.

  8. Wait a minute, people hated Little Miss Sunshine? I didn’t realize the distaste was that strong. I found it a little exhausting, but I wouldn’t call it bad. I wouldn’t call it hilarious, either. Hmm, sounds like Juno

  9. Hate is perhaps too strong a word, but there was a lot of LMS backlash, especially after it was nominated for the Oscar.

  10. Just like Juno.

    Although, I knew people that hated LMS even before it got nominated for the Oscar. Or maybe I should say strongly disliked it.

  11. That’s true too, though they were fewer and further between.

    Both films hold up better removed from the hype, to the extent they hold up at all.

    I thought LMS was a harmless diversion, but once it became the feel-good movie of the year…

  12. Kudos to you Craig for being completely honest in your appraisal of this one. It might not work for everyone, but since you had to guess the general assumption was that we all thought it would suck it’s great to see you come out in favor of it. I wasn’t itching to see it but I also was hoping it might be a worthy DVD rental if nothing else.

  13. I don’t think either Juno or LMS are bad movies. Reading the screenplay for LMS, months before it was released, it read like a dopey, contrived second-hand piece of work. Its success should be credited to its directors and cast and not its Oscar-winning screenplay.

  14. Thanks Joel, I think you all know me well enough by now so you know when to take a review with a grain of salt. This might be one of those occasions, but I have to call them like I see them.

    I’m a little afraid to read reviews of it now in case I’m completely contradicted…

    Interesting Jeff how everyone was comfortable with its best screenplay win but would’ve cried foul if the directors had won, no?

  15. I think that shows you how little respect screenwriting has in Hollywood – it was just small enough of an award for everyone to feel like the movie had been justly rewarded.

  16. Since somebody else punted Little Miss Sunshine, I’ll run with the ball a few more yards — and maybe carry it right out of bounds.

    Wasn’t LMS supposed to teach us that it’s wrong for show-biz parents to deprive kids of their ice-cream, and instead let them take pride in their babyfat cuteness ? So who put Abigail Breslin on the Jenny Craig diet?

  17. It’s rough growing up in front of the camera.

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