Thursday, July 17, 2008

Definitely, Maybe

Director: Adam Brooks
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Rachel Weisz, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks, Derek Luke, Kevin Kline

Running Time: 112 min.

Rating: PG-13

**** (out of ****)

For the past couple of weeks nearly everyone who knows my taste in movies has been telling me that I have to see Definitely, Maybe. It could be partially because they’re aware of my abnormally high tolerance for romantic comedies, or “chick flicks,” as they’re more commonly known. It could almost be described as an abusive relationship because although I enjoy watching them, I view them mostly as a joke. I almost look forward to the bad ones just for a good laugh because I find the ways that they’re bad fascinating and the reasons women love them perplexing.

So when the mostly positive reviews for Definitely, Maybe came pouring in and it was being referred to as a “chick flick for guys” I knew this could really be good for some more chuckles. What I wasn’t prepared for was that I’d have to check my jokes at the door for this one. It’s startlingly ambitious and almost epic in scope, going places other movies in this genre never do with a premise that’s brilliant and fun. Now, finally, I can recommend a “chick flick” without fear of embarrassment at all. I wouldn’t hesitate telling anyone I encounter how much love this movie.

At its center is a compelling mystery with an outcome that’s seriously in doubt and many guys watching will put themselves in the position of the protagonist and wonder what choice they would make. It’s the rare comedy that understands that sometimes we make the wrong decisions and have to live with the consequences. That life speeds by so quickly it’s often hard to catch up. That people come and go and disappear and reappear in our lives when we least expect it. Things happen. Paths cross. Timing is everything. And none of it seems forced or contrived, but develops organically from the situation.
The focus is on a protagonist who not only has an interesting love life, but an interesting life filled with people who are intelligent and we’d actually want to spend time with. Guys will see a lot of themselves in him while girls will no doubt relate to one or more of the women he’s encountered along the way. It also sees an opening to depict a time period that has been underexposed in movies and milks it for everything it’s worth. As a result, everything feels so fresh and original and the second I saw that the story was taking place in this era I nearly jumped out of my seat. For me it felt like going home again because it’s a period I feel a very close connection to. I was prepared for the possibility this might be good, but I never would have guessed I’d be this blown away. Critics and audiences have actually undersold just how much this film has to offer everyone.

38 year-old advertising executive Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) is going through a divorce and looks forward to the few days a week he gets to spend time with his 11 year-old daughter, Maya (Abigail Breslin). After her school implements a sex education program she starts probing her father to tell her the story of how he and her mother met and got married. After some initial reluctance he caves in, but tells the story under his terms, changing names and facts and leaving it up to Maya to guess which one of the three main women in his life becomes her mom.

There’s his college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks) who he leaves in Wisconsin in 1992 so he can work in New York as a gopher on the Clinton Presidential campaign. While there, he meets Emily’s longtime friend, Summer (Rachel Weisz) a sexy, sophisticated journalist whose having a bizarre affair with famous writer Hampton Roth (a fantastic Kevin Kline). The final suspect is his best friend April (Isla Fisher) a free-spirited copy girl who wants to travel the globe. The film already has an intriguing premise in place but its what it does with that premise that’s so impressive. Will starts his journey as a young, idealistic go-getter determined to change the world and make his mark but the world has other plans.

There’s a certain naivety to him when he first arrives in New York and these three women not only play a huge role in changing the course of his life, but also defining who he is as a human being. The smartest thing director Adam Brooks’ script does is convince us that all three of these women could very well be “the one” for Will. A lesser screenplay would have just presented them as stereotypes, like “the brain” or “the slut” and it would have been obvious by about a half hour into the picture who he would end up with.

Too many times in today’s romantic comedies female characters are completely defined by being in a relationship with a man and can’t think or act for themselves. Here, the ups and downs in Will’s relationships with these women are partially caused by actions they took because they’re independent, strong and intelligent. But that’s not to say Will’s deluded idealism and desire to please doesn't get in the way as well.
Brooks makes it interesting for us because none of these women are the “wrong choice” for him necessarily; they’re all just very different. I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a favorite that the audience (both male and female) will naturally gravitate to and Brooks knows this and plays with it, but not in a way that feels the slightest bit manipulative. And because this is a film that actually does reflect real life for a change, we know that’s no indication that she’ll be the last woman standing.

Guys watching will have a strong opinion who the best choice is, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for Will, or that he can even end up with her. Just when we think one of them is out of Will’s life for good they’re realistically pulled back in. Through masterful writing, Brooks puts the viewer in a situation where any of the three possible results would be a complete shock. This isn’t just a great setup because the pay off delivers in a huge way.

Then there’s Will’s relationship with his daughter, arguably the most important one of the film. I had gotten involved in this guy’s fascinating life that I almost completely forgot that his daughter was listening to all of this. That she had to hear all these things that he did and yet in a strange way, through these flaws, he actually looks like a better father to her. I had also completely forgotten that this story ends in divorce making the story that much more painful for this kid. What’s going to happen with that? There’s real doubt. This script is working well on so many different levels it’s almost astounding.

That’s not even mentioning the little life details it slides in, especially when it comes to the ripe, inspired setting of New York in the early ‘90’s. The city is a living, breathing character in itself informing Will’s life as much as the women in it and the Clinton era provides the perfect backdrop for his emotional virginity. As the administration wears on Will’s idealism understandably wears off and some disillusionment and cynicism sets in. The film tells us as much about our country’s mindset during this time period as it does his.
There are so many accurate and funny details concerning the early and middle part of the decade slid in I wouldn’t dare ruin them. One of the joys for me watching this was thinking back to what I was doing back then, which rather frighteningly at times resembled some things that occurred on screen (albeit at a far younger age). I’m sure I must have found this section of the film far funnier than most, but I bet more than a few would relate to it.

There's truth in the sketching of the most minor characters as well, like Kevin Kline’s drunken, pompous politico. You know that feeling when you’re watching a movie and you think, “I know someone EXACTLY like that.” Well, it's actually true this time. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve encountered just like this guy and after you’ve seen the movie and meet this character you’re probably going to feel really sorry for me. And Kline nails it, also adding considerable depth that's probably lacking from his real-life counterparts. I would have watched a separate movie about just him and his relationship with Weisz's character.

Ryan Reynolds has shown us glimpses of something recently with his work in The Nines and Smokin’ Aces, but this is the most fully realized performance of his career thus far. It isn’t the most dramatically challenging, but he seems effortlessly comfortable in it. It helps he’s an actor that doesn’t come with any preconceived notions. His Will comes off as a guy women would want to be with and guys would want to have a beer with and watch the game. He’s inoffensive and believable to every audience, a rare feat in a romantic comedy.

All three actresses are uniformly excellent in different ways. Elizabeth Banks has probably the least amount of screen time of screen time of the three but makes it count while Rachel Weisz brings an aura of sexy mystery to Summer, the woman who just may be out of Will’s league. In what seems like her millionth attempt in the past two years, Isla Fisher finally delivers in a role that requires much more than just standing there and looking pretty. I never got what the big fuss was about her as an actress, but I got it now. Reynolds shares the best chemistry with young Abigail Breslin, who gives a child performance that never seems cloying or forced and she even manages to get off many of the film’s most memorable lines.
At just under 2 hours, Definitely, Maybe could be considered long for a romantic comedy but it’s one of the few times I remember watching the clock and wanting it to slow down. I was hoping Brooks would come up with even more complications and obstacles to keep this going and prolong the mystery. I couldn’t wait to see what happens but there was another part of me didn’t want to find out. It’s a relief to finally see an ending that’s earned. This is a character went through hell and high water to arrive there and it wasn’t through the machinations of a contrived screenplay.

I’ve referred to this film many times as a “romantic comedy” but I should stop because it isn’t. It’s more of an entertaining, involving human drama with romantic and comedic elements mixed in. It would play well with fans of the television show How I Met Your Mother because it takes that high concept and expands it, bringing more depth to the premise. It’s much smarter and more involved than anyone could expect at first glance and I was surprised how much of it hit so close to home for me (unfortunately though not the part about choosing between three beautiful women).

How can I give THIS four stars? Easily because there isn’t a flaw to be found and it does what it’s trying to do perfectly in the most challenging of genres. It could have gone wrong in so many different ways but didn't. This movie isn’t going to change the world but it’s one of the best romantic comedies to come a long in recent years and with the amount I’ve seen I should know. Guys should consider themselves lucky if their girlfriends force them to watch this. Definitely, Maybe isn’t just a “chick flick,” it’s a great film.


JD said...

I remember watching this earlier in the year. I didn't mind it, I can't say I loved it as much as you did, but it is certainly better than most in the genre. Ryan Reynolds is growing on me and this film is by far one of his better roles along with Smokin Aces and The Nines.

Fisher, Banks and Weisz were equally good.
Excellent review.

Jon Medina: Illegitimate Son of Lester Bangs said...

Wow! Spectacular review. I need to go back and watch this. I love your passion for it. I really enjoyed this movie, but I'm shocked at how much you liked it. It was really good, but I was surprised to see a 4 out of 4. Knowing your impeccable taste, I have to trust that I need to watch this again and pay more attention. Awesome job, Jeremy.