I can swallow many preposterous ideas in a romantic comedy, but "Definitely, Maybe" contains a whopper that stands head and shoulders above them all. You're telling me that the script dreams up a main character who attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1992, and he has no idea who Nirvana is? The screenwriter clearly wasn't doing his homework.
On the eve of his divorce, Will Hayes (an immensely likable Ryan Reynolds) is trying to sort out what went wrong in his love life. When Will's daughter (Abigail Breslin) requests the story of how her parents met, the frightened father instead makes the tale a game, where he takes the three relationships of his adulthood (a trifecta of feminine perfection with Isla Fisher, Rachael Weisz, and Elizabeth Banks) and mixes them up to confuse the child. While explaining the tangents of his broken heart, Will inadvertently stumbles upon rather painful memories, which compel him to reconsider his bad decisions and missed romantic opportunities.
After being chained to the theater seat watching swill like "27 Dresses," "Maybe" feels like a cool breeze; an intelligent but gracefully sappy romantic comedy that understands relentless formula is not the cornerstone of charm, investing in multifaceted characterization and a sympathetic tone. Perhaps this is due to filmmaker Adam Brooks, who is not a barcoded Hollywood drone, but an idiosyncratic filmmaker ("The Invisible Circus") who's been making some scratch in recent years writing such enjoyable mainstream fare as "Wimbledon" and the "Bridget Jones" sequel.
Brooks is committed to these characters; he doesn't view them as meet-cute speed bumps, but people with the tartness of big screen romantic archetypes and the heaviness of real-world longing. "Maybe" is a rom-com in the loosest of definitions, preferring to use Will as an exploration of heartbreaking missed opportunities and emotional maturation. He's not a just a stick figure waiting to chase the girl, and that little tweak of intent makes all the difference in the world between putting the audience to sleep and challenging them to embrace characters who are fallible.
"Maybe" is also something of a time machine, as Will's story begins in 1992, where the young man starts his adult life as an idealist working for the Clinton campaign. The Nirvana snafu is the only goofy 90's pitch of the film (well, there's a chunky cell phone joke tossed in too), with Brooks again staying close to matters of the heart, not underlining the era and reaching for the easy joke.
"Maybe" falls into a disoriented "Return of the King" cycle where it doesn't know where to end, but Brooks finally lands the picture as close to ideal as can be. Will's pick of the ladies would've been textbook fodder for a third act come-from-behind victory (perhaps scored to a song from Fall Out Boy or Maroon 5), but "Maybe" doesn't choose the easy way out and permits the character legitimate discomfort and a persuasive questioning of self. This is a lovely movie for Valentine's Day; a picture that doesn't insult the audience by beating them over the head with stagnant artifice.
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