Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger has a thing for romantic comedies—or more specifically, the women in them, particularly when those women include Elizabeth Banks, Isla Fisher, and Rachel Weisz.
Three relationships. Three disasters. One last chance.
It is difficult to redefine a well-defined genre, particularly one with such established patterns and rules as the Romantic Comedy. Unlike horror, in which failures are typically interesting, failed attempts to bend the rules of romantic comedies are simply failures—painful or embarrassing emotional wringers that leave viewers feeling used and frustrated. Does the fresh approach of Definitely, Maybe break open the genre or break itself apart on the proverbial rocks?
Facts of the Case
Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds, Smokin' Aces) is a political advisor-turned-marketer whose divorce papers have just arrived. When he picks up his 11-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine) from school, he gets another surprise: Maya wants to know the real story of how Will and her mother met.
Buckling under her persistence, Will agrees to tell the tale, as long as he can change names to protect the guilty. Thus, Maya will not know if her mother in the story is Emily (Elizabeth Banks, The 40 Year Old Virgin), Will's college sweetheart; April (Isla Fisher, Wedding Crashers), the copy girl at Will's first political gig; or Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener), a fiery journalist and school chum of Emily's.
As Will spins the tale (to Maya's indignant interruptions), we glean the story of a life of potent relationships, failed attempts at love, and the promise of love unfulfilled. Is there hope yet for Will, Maya, and mom to be a happy family?
One of the earliest gags in Definitely, Maybe sets a tone of keen social observation, near-misses, foreboding, and wry wit. Will walks down the streets of New York on the way to see his daughter. It is obvious that Will enjoys this rare span of private time: he tunes the world out with the perfect song on his player, walks both with purpose and a sense of reflection and recharging. He meets the gaze of a fellow music enthusiast with softball-sized cans on his ear and the lanky look of a hardcore music freak. Will, with his polished shoes and neat suit, contrasts sharply with this anonymous fellow New Yorker, but the two share a moment nonetheless. Will makes ready to step off the curb and cross the street, only to be grabbed by the other fellow. A Mack truck whizzes by, barely missing Will's face. Not bothering to stop their respective tunes, the two mouth a silent "thank you" and "you're welcome" and head on their merry ways.
Such moments reveal the heart of Definitely, Maybe. It is hip; tuned in. Its characters are not completely scrutable, often cloaking their agendas. Definitely, Maybe thrives on missed opportunities that come from people tuning out their own desires, and following defined patterns instead of truly paying attention to others and following their hearts. The movie that unfolds from these intertwined missed chances is always interesting, if not always satisfying. Definitely, Maybe doesn't redefine the genre, but it is a novel movie that succeeds by bending some conventions of the romcom genre.
Aside from formula, which this movie ostensibly tosses to the four winds, romantic comedies thrive on relationships. If you paid attention to the cast list, you'll find that each of the key roles is capably filled. Rachel Weisz is a knockout in every role she tackles, and her Summer Hartley is no exception. Elizabeth Banks tones down the flirtatious depravity that made her turn in The 40 Year Old Virgin so memorable in order to play a Midwestern sweetheart. Given that Emily is the straw woman role, Banks gives an admirable performance that prevents this stock character from being bland. Isla Fisher imbues her brief, scattered scenes with a potent range of emotions and reactions that keep us constantly guessing about her character. The fourth lady in Will's life, Maya, is played with spirit and humor by Abigail Breslin, who is (definitely) the real deal or (maybe) benefits from a string of strong directors.
This leaves Ryan Reynolds as Will. Reynolds has done some superhero stuff, some "token asshole" stuff, and some leading man stuff. Maybe because he shares some of Keanu Reeves's physical impassivity or maybe because he hasn't pigeonholed himself, Reynolds is hard to read in this role and has drawn heat from critics. Yet he nails the most important key to being a romantic comedy leading man: he appeals to men and a variety of women while not coming off as a slut or a slimeball. Reynolds also embraces the script's sense of wit and self-deprecation to craft an inscrutable, but easily likable, foil for four different women. This is a difficult balancing act. Not only is Reynolds funny; he makes Will's frustrated emotions and ambitions bubble to the surface in unexpected ways that keep Definitely, Maybe going.
Finally, Kevin Kline (A Prairie Home Companion) portrays the memorable curmudgeon Hampton Roth; it is a delicious and wicked cameo that further shores up Definitely, Maybe's star power.
Since the standard formula has been jettisoned, what of the plot? This is a flaw in Definitely, Maybe. While the romance mystery angle certainly keeps us guessing, it is an artificial setup that is not entirely rewarding. Will and Maya are fully aware who Will married, but we are not. This gives the viewer a sense of being shut out, and for no real reason other than "because it will keep you guessing, now shut up and watch." To be fair, this setup is necessary for the movie to take place, and much of the tension comes from lack of information. I just couldn't get past the niggling feeling of being taken for a ride that wasn't entirely necessary. Otherwise, the writing and direction (both courtesy of Adam Brooks) are capable and sure in each scene. The tradeoff is uncertainty, which is woefully absent from most romcoms and enriches this one.
Universal has packed this DVD release with a decent transfer, three 5.1 tracks, and a handful of extras. The movie has a warm, nostalgic palette that really shines in the 2.35 aspect ratio. It was apparently decided that this disc would be viewed mostly on small screens, so there is a moderate amount of edge enhancement. The contrast is also flatter than I'd expect given the obvious visual care in the feature. These annoyances aside, the movie looks good, with impressive clarity and warmth. Definitely, Maybe is concerned with the 1990s, and a robust soundtrack filled with hits from that decade gives the feature a steady diet of musical exhilaration. The Surround mix does not test the spatial limits of a 5.1 setup (again, perhaps deciding that romcoms are not home-theater fodder) but the soundtrack is dynamic and pleasing. The sentiment of the audio visuals is the important thing in this case, and Definitely, Maybe is effective at recreating fond memories of the '90s.
The extras cement this vibe. An initially funny and self-deprecating track from Brooks and Reynolds trails off, but honestly I wouldn't know what to say for two hours about a romantic comedy either. The sponsored "Creating a Romance" is as fluff-ridden as you'd expect. "The Changing Times of Definitely, Maybe" is an amusing blip that discusses '90s fads (mostly through discussion of an innocuous, but pivotal, scene where Will and April flirt in a convenience store). The deleted scenes are perhaps the best of the features; these are not mere throwaways for the most part, but actually add something to our understanding of the characters.
Definitely, Maybe does not blow the romcom genre out of stagnant water as it originally threatens to. Rather, it introduces some subtle, but potent, twists in the standard that makes the movie more fun to watch. If it ultimately proves to be a dyed-in-the-wool romcom, it is nonetheless an effective and worthwhile entry into the genre. A mixture of great music, inspired acting, and intriguing relationships tips the balance: Definitely, Maybe is more "definitely" than "maybe."
Daters and romantics, welcome. Grab a seat.
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