Definitely Maybe (Movie Review)
Last night my wife sent me out to bring back some videos and I came back with Definitely Maybe, a DVD whose cover leans heavily on its connection to Love Actually and Notting Hill (a little misleading because some of the same production people, but those two are very English while this one's set in New York). Of the four movies I’d brought back on my bicycle, this was the one she wanted me to put on right away. Five minutes in after Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) showed up, she says “Oh, I’ve seen this already with H (our daughter).”
“It just came out on video. You’re saying you guys rented it in the last three weeks without my knowing?”
“No, it wasn’t in the last three weeks.”
I had to take the movie off and we then watched choice two. Our daughter came home from work (she’s had a job at a high-end ice cream parlor for three years), saw the DVD box, and said, “Mom and I saw that one in the theater a few months ago. Remember mom, we didn’t like the ending?”
Great….I’m the only one in the house who hasn’t definitely maybe seen Definitely Maybe, I have to wait until they go to bed, and I already know there’s something odd about the ending. In the meantime, I'm wondering how my wife managed to forget seeing a movie in a theater.
To be accurate, my problem with Definitely Maybe is also with the beginning. It’s way too cutesy. It starts with an over the top parody of the aftermath of a public school sex education class where the parents didn’t get prior notification (doesn’t work that way) then slips into the kind of post-modern story telling device for that elderly beast known as the romantic comedy aka chick flick pioneered by Woody Allen in Annie Hall thirty years ago. Sadly, Woody Allen remains the one semi-popular film maker who actually does post-modern romantic comedy well at least on screen though not in his real life.
In any case, Defnitely Maybe’s premise is that Dad and Mom are about to get divorced. Ryan Reynolds has visitation rights with daughter Abigail Breslin (she’s really good at the cute kid thing, but her role in this movie consists of little more than her making precocious comments every ten minutes). Breslin demands that Reynolds tell her the truth about how he met and fell in love with mommy. After some cutesy pleading from Breslin, Reynolds agrees reluctantly on the condition that he can change all the names and some of the details.
The bystander story is a pretty well-established movie device. It’s often done with the main character talking to someone in a bar or at a train station (read moving conveyance) and jump cuts via from the frame story to a series of flashbacks. This particular frame with a ten year old daughter has some problems, the biggest being why wouldn’t a ten year old know some basics about her own mother as in which state she was from or what she did for a living at the time she met dad? You have to get past that, or you’ll probably hate Definitely Maybe and yeah the ending has a similar issue. That said, director-writer does add a twist to the formula in that this is both a “How I met your mom” movie and an exploration of something a little less romantic, the business of giving up dreams and missing opportunities.
I did really like what was inside the frame. The inner part of the movie tracks the Clinton years as Reynolds moves from idealism and a romantic view of love to cynicism and resignation along with the Clinton administration. On the way, Reynolds gets involved with three very different women . Elizabeth Banks is the college sweetheart. Isla Fisher (Wedding Crashers) plays the free spirit who has a thing for old copies of Jane Eyre, a device used in the movie Serendipity with copies of Love in the Time of Cholera. Rachel Weisz (About a Boy, The Constant Gardener) plays the ultimate New York career sophisticate who serves as a marker for Reynolds’ progression from boy to man. All three actresses are terrific on screen, but the performance of the movie comes form Kevin Kline who reprises his role from Orange County as a cantankerous but brilliant writer who serves as the main character’s simultaneous rival, mentor, and plot device.
Most romantic comedies are really timing movies. Usually, the audience knows the final pairing but various roadblocks to their pairing come up at all the crucial times. Definitely Maybe is no exception to that, but it rather cleverly keeps things hidden by baiting and switching with an ancient movie cliché (this is Breslin’s main function in the movie). What happens along the way though is done with some measure of wit and originality. Reynolds actually has some charm as a romantic lead (Just Friends was a disaster, but he apparently got another chance) and pulls off the 16 year time span for the main character with real credibility. As he shifts from innocence and ambition to resignation with various romantic mishaps and the crash of his political career, there’s a certain growing heaviness to his movement and his facial expressions become ever so slightly guarded.
Of the three female leads, Elizabeth Banks may be the weakest, but that’s partly because she’s perfectly cast as the Midwestern hometown love who initially fears the ways in which New York will change Reynolds. Weisz and Fisher are both terrific versatile actresses. Fisher’s especially good at shifting emotional gears. In one key scene, she reverses field on the plot with a genuine stillness of self accompanied by a slight but noticeable change in voice tone. You can believe her both as a young woman with no political convictions who dates wannabe rock musicians and as someone who slowly finds her center, one which turns out to be more idealistic than Reynolds's. I’ve never seen Weisz be anything less than good in a movie. In this case, she’s sexy, sophisticated, yet flawed, something which she pulls off with her eyes.
I should also mention that Defnitely Maybe is one of many movies in which New York, the city,is a character. This version of New York is soft and welcoming. People wander empty streets in the middle of the night. Every store and bar is filled with gregarious people and chatty service people. 9/11 is never mentioned, yet Adam Brooks rather subtly gets across the relative innocence of the nineties which seem filled with the possibilities of the internet and other changes against the grimmer times that come after 9/11.
This would have been a Maybe for a movie to see in a theater, but if you want something that’s both diverting and mildly intelligent (if you ignore the hokey beginning and end) Definitely Maybe definitely works on video even if the rest of your family is in bed not watching with you. Think of it as How Harry Missed Sally.