Thursday, February 14, 2008

"Definitely, Maybe" -- * * *

I've always considered Ryan Reynolds a fairly talented comedic actor who just happened to pick irritating projects/characters. With "Definitely, Maybe," he again plays the kind of role he's played before, but this time grounded in reality and deprived of over-the-top antics and smug broadness. I can't say it's his best performance (I thought he was borderline-excellent in the underrated "Smokin' Aces"), but it's certainly a step in the right direction, and a sign he has a desire to mature as an actor. As for the movie itself, it's significantly better-- and less cutesy-- than you might have imagined, and probably the ideal date movie for this upcoming day of St. Valentine. Never feeling like a studio-assembled, formula chick flick (which, incidentally, the ads are selling it as), the flick manages to focus on heartbreak just as much as lovey-dovey feelings, and almost amazingly, adds an element of unpredictability into this most predictable of genres.

The movie undercuts our expectations from the first scene, with our protagonist, Will Hayes (Reynolds) being served divorce papers at his office. Via narration, he explains to us that this is a Tuesday, and Tuesday and Friday are his favorite days because those are the days he gets to leave work early and pick up his daughter Maya (an increasingly tiresome Abigail Breslin) from school. Due to some contrived reasoning having to do with Maya's school teaching sex-ed (if you've ever wanted to hear Abigail Breslin say the word "penis" an inordinate amount of times, this is the movie for you), the girl wants to hear a bedtime story of how Will met her mommy. He complies, reluctantly, but insists upon changing the names, situations and telling stories of multiple past loves and let Maya figure out which one be her momma. She comments, "I like it, it's like a love story mystery." Indeed.

Story one concerns Emily (Elizabeth Banks), Will's college sweetheart who initially gets left behind in Wisconsin as he heads to New York to work on Bill Clinton's '92 campaign. There, he falls for Summer (Rachel Weisz), who he discovers (a) bumped snatches with Emily when the two attended college together, and (b) is now fucking her thesis advisor, famed author Hampton Roth (Kevin Kline). Lastly, there's April (Isla Fisher), Will's co-worker at the Clinton campaign office, who claims to be working there just for the money, as well as not believing in marriage or monogamy. Yeah, one of those. We're led to believe one of these three will be Maya's mother, but the film also leaves open the possibility it could just pull a "killer in 'Scream 2'" and Maya's mother could be a random female character who's only in a scene or two.

Besides the whole "mystery" angle, a big reason why "Definitely, Maybe" works is that it doesn't feel like corny or fluffy bullshit, often a trait of even the best romantic comedies/dramas. The three ladies are written as the sort of women all of us have at least encountered, not just archetypes, and the character interactions feel genuine. Even at its most "movie"-ish, there are never bombastic "meet-her-in-the-restaurant-she-works-in-to-propose-to-her-in-front-of-all-the-customers-in-the-new-language-that-I-just-learned" moments; they're all vaguely recognizable situations that infuse the movie with a grounded sensibility. We may not all be lucky enough to fall ass-backwards into attractive mates like Will does, but the actual experiences ring true. In fact, some audience members may be disappointed that the movie isn't "adorable" or "amazing" like their favorites, "Love Actually" or "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," and hits closer to home than the escapist romantic flicks they revere.

My most anticipated aspect of the movie was the presence of the three leading ladies, as I'm fans of all three actresses, and they do in fact prove to be the highlights of the film. Banks is, unfortunately, not in the movie a whole lot, disappearing from the 45-minute to the 90-minute mark. She doesn't really get to show her comedic chops as she did in "Slither" and "The Baxter," but it's hard for her to not be charming whenever she's on screen; hopefully this will be another stepping stone to her becoming a genuine A-list leading lady. Fisher is recognizable as the apathetic quirky liberal New Yorker (who wears The Smiths t-shirts) we've all been annoyed by, and as such, she's more annoying here than I've found her before, though I spoke to others who felt differently. Weisz ends up being the biggest charmer of the bunch, and personally, I was rooting for her to be Will's final destination. I've found her to generally be on autopilot when appearing in studio fare for hire (e.g.: "Fred Claus," "The Mummy Returns"), but she actually infuses her segments here with charm and enthusiasm.

I keep seeing deceiving TV spots for "Definitely, Maybe" calling it "the best romantic comedy since 'Annie Hall,'" and not only is this an absurd statement (the movie's good, but no great shakes), it must be said that it is emphatically NOT a comedy. There's a few jokes here or there, and some cutesy moments involving Breslin, but the movie rarely goes for laughs, and that's one of its strengths. While I guess it's easier to sell something using the term "romantic comedy," those entering here should be prepared for a more dramatic piece of work than the ads and Reynolds' presence might indicate. This actually ends up being a positive trait of the movie, helping it avoid the strained cutesiness that seems inevitable, but it may catch some off guard.

The movie, written and directed by Adam Banks (formerly showing little promise with "Wimbledon" and "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason"), makes some interesting decisions separating it from the rom-com pack and making it more engaging to watch. One is the general conceit of leaving it a mystery of (a) who is Maya's mother, and (b) who, if anyone, Will will end up with. "Mystery" and "surprise" are rarely nouns that apply to this genre, but here we're actually kept guessing, and occasionally disappointed. Another colorful structural decision is having Will's romantic progressions occur alongside Clinton's 1992 campaign and the trajectory of his personal life during BC's presidency. Rather than just an initial gimmick, Will's job/support for Clinton mirror his personal life and one often influences his opinion of the other.

Striving (and succeeding) to do something different within the genre, "Definitely, Maybe" isn't a warm, gooey romance, but it's still enjoyable and sweet enough to satisfy those striving for a genuinely solid date movie. Infused with a wonderful early-'90s soundtrack (lots of Nirvana and R.E.M.) and actually managing to capture the feel of the West Village-- where most of the film was shot-- there's enough worthwhile stuff here to serve as a perfect alternative to the shit sandwich that is "Fool's Gold." It may be an unabashed chick flick, but since when was there anything wrong with that?


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