DEFINITELY, MAYBE (Adam Brooks, 2008)
Dissatisfied at work and on the verge of divorce, Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) wonders how he ended up where life has brought him. In DEFINITELY, MAYBE he gets the opportunity to revisit his post-college path into adulthood when his daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) quizzes him about how he met her mother and why he doesn't love her now.
Will decides to spare Maya no details, including some a father probably ought to omit, as he tells her about the three primary women from his past. He changes the names so she can try to figure out which might be the one she calls mom.
The candidates include Emily (Elizabeth Banks), the college sweetheart Will leaves in Wisconsin when he goes to New York City to help with Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign; Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz), a journalist and acquaintance of Emily's; and April (Isla Fisher), an apolitical worker at campaign headquarters who becomes his best friend.
DEFINITELY, MAYBE'S framing device feels especially contrived since Maya knows her mom. The way she's spoken of in the present makes it sound as though she's been out of the picture for years. In theory Maya would be familiar enough with her parents' story or mother's history that this needlessly complicated recounting of Will's love life wouldn't have her guessing nearly as long as she does.
While the uncertainty of which woman Will marries is a nice change from the many predictable romantic comedies, the mystery gets stretched out a little beyond the point where it still holds interest. Will is a storyteller who doesn't know what parts are extraneous.
Yet it is the attention to the messy details in each of Will's relationships that serves as DEFINITELY, MAYBE'S strength. Romantic comedies can often be mindless sprints to the altar. This film gets entrenched in the mundane issues that test and frustrate people who may be good together if it weren't for different choices or circumstances.
Will and Emily might have been the perfect couple if he hadn't left her hundreds of miles behind. Will and Summer might have made great partners if professional interests didn't cause conflict. Will and April might have become more than wonderful friends if the timing of their availability wasn't so rotten. Love is seldom as easy as it appears in the movies. DEFINITELY, MAYBE does an admirable job of presenting the struggles inherent in finding the love of a lifetime.
I've found Reynolds insufferable in many of his other films, but here he dials down the smug self-assurance in exchange for confused idealism. He dives into politics with hope and energy only to be disappointed by his heroes. (The Clinton campaign can seem too visible in the film, but the former President's problems brought on by character flaws function as a barometer of Will's dashed expectations.) Personal life proves to be no easier to sort out.
Writer-director Adam Brooks smartly positions none of the women as villains. Emily, Summer, and April are appealing in their own ways. Banks has the most thinly written part of the the three. Weisz, an actress whose projected intelligence Hollywood sometimes treats as a liability, gives interesting shadings to a character whose independence and knowledge can get in the way of her own happiness. Bubbly and good-hearted, Fisher lights up the screen with with her energy and easygoing demeanor, yet by no means is she a pushover.
DEFINITELY, MAYBE stumbles along the way to its destination just like its protagonist does, but the humor and heart compensate for the lack of sure footing that extends all the way to the uncertainty in the title.