Combining elements of a children's bedtime story, bittersweet New York romantic comedy, keep-'em-guessing mystery story and even political dramedy, "Definitely, Maybe" proves that there are still innovative ways to tell the oldest story of all, the one about two people falling in love.
The film is the latest from England's Working Title production studio, the clever chaps who gave us "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "About a Boy," "Love, Actually" and several Coen brothers films. It follows Manhattan ad guy Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) through the days leading up to his divorce. His precocious young daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin), perplexed by all the complicated things that adults do with, and to, one another, asks how Dad and Mom met, and he obliges with a mostly true story.
He assigns aliases to three women who touched his heart in the past 16 years -- the college sweetheart, the quirky confidante, and the passionate professional peer -- challenging the little girl to deduce which one he married.
The film keeps audiences guessing, too, through creative and playful storytelling. At 10, Maya is young enough to be enthralled by a suspenseful yarn. But she's a hip-beyond-her-years 10. When Dad launches his tale about his prim undergraduate love Emily (Elizabeth Banks), the media savvy-Breslin scoffs: Everyone knows the first girl introduced in these stories never makes it to the finale.
April (Isla Fisher), an office temp whom Reynolds meets during the 1992 presidential campaign, is appealing but rootless and undirected. Summer (Rachel Weisz), adventurous and fiercely smart, is erotic catnip for men (her lover when Reynolds arrives on the scene is an aging literary lion played by Kevin Kline) and also, we learn, for women. Breslin works up a chart on lined paper to predict the ending, and many viewers will run mental calculations of their own.
Tricks and twists abound, however. As he moves from idealistic youth to rueful adulthood, Will evolves in genuine yet surprising ways, as do the women in his life. They all are rounded characters with human failings, not a stock villain in the bunch.
There are unsuccessful moments here, with Breslin pushing the awwww, cute button too insistently, and Reynolds divulging details of his love life inappropriate for 10-year-old ears. But more often writer/director Adam Banks has a good feel for detail, from clunky 1990s cell phones the size of bricks to Kurt Cobain's mumbly way with a lyric. What a delight it is to see a New York movie whose characters live in realistically squeezy apartments!
Reynolds, who has been gaining attention for years in second-string comedies and wisecracking action fare, makes an ingratiating romantic lead. His three adult co-stars and Breslin draw out different qualities in him; you can see why he responds to each of them. This is a man who blooms in the presence of women, but struggles to comprehend them.
Director Banks draws a loose parallel between his hero's journey and Bill Clinton's presidency, beginning with ambition and self-confidence, undermined by poor judgment in which grounds for impeachment entangled with grounds for divorce. You can empathize with everyone involved and heave a sigh of thanks when Banks finishes his busy, likable film with a logical yet imaginative conclusion: a series of endings, alternately melancholy and guardedly optimistic. Definitely, yes.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186