Several things conspire to make Definitely, Maybe seem a dicey proposition at first glance. There's the rarely-inspiring presence of Ryan Reynolds, whose film career has, up to now, moved between mediocre comedies and mediocre action and horror films and served mostly as a demonstration of the phenomenon of 'failing up.' There's also the gimmicky nature of the pitch giving off warning signs, as divorcing dad Reynolds tells his daughter Abigail Breslin the story of his life before he got married, shielding names and facts so she can't figure out which of the three women (Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks or Rachel Weisz) he knew and loved when he was single came to be her mother. "I like it," Breslin says early in the film, appraising Reynolds's efforts. "It's like a love story-mystery." And even that's a somewhat off-putting moment; Gee, kid, thanks for pointing that out for us.
But Definitely, Maybe, written and directed by Adam Brooks, surprised me as it unfolded, and got around my initial reservations with its mix of good humor and grace. Not only is Reynolds an appealing lead here -- possibly because the boyishness that's undercut his other work is an integral part of his character – but Definitely, Maybe also has some grit and gristle under the glib gimmick of the mommy-mystery hook. As Reynolds explains the long and winding road of what happened and when, Brooks's script mostly doesn't shy away from the tough stuff, and it doesn't paint Reynolds as some perfect, hapless everyman undone by random chance; he makes mistakes, and he pays for them, and he tries to set things right. Reynolds is normally light and charming enough on screen, but there's something new in his performance here, as his inner feelings keep coming into view behind his smile.
Reynolds's bedtime story and the film flashback to 1992 (and the realization that 1992 is now a long-lost era to be captured in flashback made me briefly imagine I could feel my bones thinning as I sat in the theater, but never mind), when he was leaving Madison, Wisconsin for a summer gig in New York to work on the presidential campaign of a long shot underdog named Bill Clinton. Reynolds is leaving behind his college sweetheart, Elizabeth Banks, but they're going to see the separation through; still, as the very story-conscious Breslin notes, "everybody knows the girlfriend at the beginning of the story gets dumped." If this were all Breslin provided the film – plot analysis from the youngest-ever graduate of Robert McKee's Story class -- she'd be a bore. But Breslin listens as her father relates how in New York he met co-worker Isla Fisher and connected with Banks's old friend Rachel Weisz; he grows enthralled as the plot thickens, and we're caught up too. And Breslin also manages to hit a few performance notes, like the scene where she realizes her dad's story is a complicated one, and that people change. "Wait, stop," Breslin cries out at one break in the action, wrapping her head around the brand-new and somewhat scary idea her mom was a woman before she was a parent: "What if I don't like my mom?"
If Definitely, Maybe were only its gimmick -- just a guessing game of "Are you my Mommy?" for Breslin and us -- then Definitely, Maybe would positively, decisively be tedious. But Brooks -- who wrote Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Wimbledon -- seems to have a knack for dialogue that feels elevated enough to be funny, but that doesn't come across as forced or fake. Fisher's funny and winning as a post-college, pre-life bohemian who knows who she is but not who she wants to be; Weisz puts a deft backspin on her character's laugh lines and dramatic moments, implying a lot while saying only a little. And Banks moves past the broader comedic work she's provided in films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Baxter to deliver a performance that captures the comedy of human awkwardness but also finds that comedy in the expression of a character's feelings, not just the expression of a writer's clever lines. Kevin Kline also has a nice brief turn as a boozehound man of letters, and while his introduction as Weisz's older lover is played for laughs at first, the script and all parties involved make it into something much richer.
And my praise of Definitely, Maybe has a note of caution in its tone, because it's not a perfect film by any measure. I wanted to know more about the whys and wherefores of Reynolds's divorce; that knowledge might have spoiled the gimmick, but it would have made for a better movie, even that information had come in the form of a few lines after the big reveal. At the same time, where most modern romantic comedies are obsessed with the champagne fizz of chance introductions and initial attraction, Definitely, Maybe sticks around to see what happens when the bubbles burst. Every romantic comedy has the 'meet cute' where boy first connects with girl; Definitely, Maybe has the 'meet cute,' but it also has all the things that can come after -- the awkward moments, the scary possibility of hope, the comforts of sadness, the tough talks, the ugly partings, the hard-won reconciliations.
I've already seen blurbage citing Definitely, Maybe as 'The best romantic comedy since Annie Hall"; I can foresee others dismissing it as fluff, When Harry Met Sally packaged in the framing device from The Princess Bride. Both those extremes of judgment seem a little extreme. Like last year's under-seen The Break-Up, Definitely, Maybe is a romantic comedy which knows there's something funny about how much hard work love can actually take, and something sad in how now and then love can't be fixed by hard work or anything else. And while some of the films' comedic moments are less inspired -- early-90's cell phone jokes have now become as clunky and burdensome as early '90s cell phones -- some running gags go the distance; Bill Clinton's fortunes serve as a sort of barometer for Reynolds's emotional life.
Definitely, Maybe was made by people -- and for people -- who know the real effort and smarts that go into seemingly featherweight successful romantic comedies. In a field that's been defined recently by crass, inhuman, unfunny failures like Good Luck Chuck, The Heartbreak Kid and License to Wed, a film as good-natured -- and as good -- as Definitely, Maybe can't help but seem to stand out. Yes, like so many other modern romantic comedies, Definitely, Maybe closes with a feel-good happy ending; unlike most modern romantic comedies, Definitely, Maybe has a feel-bad unhappy middle beforehand to make sure that climax feels earned.