February 21, 2008

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Definitely, Maybe (PG-13)
A divorcing father gives his already emotionally on edge daughter way way too much detail about the romances of his single days in Definitely, Maybe, a strange movie that is not terribly romantic, only somewhat of a comedy, starring a child but not at all suitable for children and actually kind of depressing.

After a very graphic sex education class, 10-year-old Maya (Abigail Breslin) asks her father Will (Ryan Reynolds) to tell her the story of how he met her mother, a woman who earlier that day sent him divorce papers. The real story, Maya says, with all the heartbreak and the sex and the PG-13 behavior. In addition to setting her health-class-rattled mind at ease, Maya hopes that a walk down the romantic memory lane will have her father thinking about reuniting with her mother.

Insanely, Will agrees to lay out the whole story — not just of Maya’s mother but of her mother and the two other women who had starring roles in his twenties. He tells her the story but changes the names and details just enough so that she’ll have to guess which of these ladies is her mother.

First, Will talks about Emily (Elizabeth Banks), the blonde college sweetheart who has become part of Will’s life plan. Step one, go to New York and work for the Arkansas governor running for president (a certain Mr. Clinton) thus leading to step two — get elected president himself. But step one requires a separation of Will and Emily. He vows to stay faithful while he’s gone and even manages to resist the charms of Summer (Rachel Weisz), a young journalist who has a history with Emily and is now dating an aging writer (Kevin Kline), and of April (Isla Fisher), a non-true-believer who works at the campaign but does not yet have her life-plan ducks in a row.

Despite his faithfulness through temptation, things with Emily don’t work as Will planned and a few years later he finds himself developing a relationship with Summer. Just as he’s about to propose to Summer, April returns from a round-the-world trip with a moony look in her eye. But then things change again, and Will finds himself alone and out of politics, working a job he dislikes. And then things change again and the trio of girls reshuffles.

Throughout it all, Will lays out a tale of ill-advised relationships and a tendency to misjudge a romantic situation (also, as his daugther points out, too much smoking and drinking). Through it all, Maya looks increasingly horrified until one particularly shocking story twist which has her wondering if Will is even her biological father.

While I suppose traumatizing your children is the kind of low-cost fun you have to rely on when the expense of divorce forces you to give up cable and cancel the Netflix, the embarrassing and sad story of Will’s romantic misadventures gives the movie an unshakeable sense of falseness. This doesn’t seem like a realistic dad and his heartbroken-over-her-parents’-divorce daughter; it seems like two actors playing out the silly gimmick that holds the movie together and gives Reynolds the excuse to repeat the cheesy “you’re the happy ending” line that you see in all the trailers. Without the nursery story framing, Definitely, Maybe and its decidedly unromantic approach to love might have worked. As it is, it seems to feel the need to cram in some happy at the end and the moment feels false. For most of the movie “love is about messing up over and over and losing people you’d planned to build a life with” seems to be the ruling principle. That’s OK — an un-romantic comedy would be a welcome change of pace. I even sort of suspect that this cast could pull off realistic regular-people-ness. Reynolds is decently shlubby for parts of this movie and he, Banks, Weisz and Fisher are all able to pull off enough of the awkwardness, callowness, harshness and goofiness that a 20something still feeling his way through their own personality has. And frequently the movie is quite funny, showing us people who still don’t have the life-work thing down and who are quick to use humor as a defense.

But the movie seems to want these bitter lemons and some sunny lemonade too. Be happy, it demands. By the time the movie ends, you feel as manhandled, manipulated and wrung out as if all those romantic misadventures had been your own. Not exactly the Valentine the movie seems to sell itself as. C+

Rated PG-13 for sexual content including frank dialogue, language and smoking. Written and directed by Adam Brooks, Definitely, Maybe is an hour and 51 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Universal.