Though falling a good bit short of the best of the Working Title-produced romantic comedies—like Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), About a Boy (2002) and Love Actually (2003)—Adam Brooks’ Definitely, Maybe marks a notable improvement over the company’s last two efforts, Wimbledon and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (both 2004). The odd part about this is that writer-director Brooks had a hand in writing that disappointing duo. Maybe just setting the film in New York City was enough to clear away the cobwebs that had started appearing on the British locales. Certainly something happened—and that something is a change for the better.
No, it’s not a great picture. It tries too hard to be different, and as a result, feels a bit longer than its actual 112-minute running time. Blame the structural device. The film is built around a father, Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds), on the verge of getting a divorce, telling his 11-year-old daughter, Maya (Abigail Breslin), the story of the three key women in his life. At the end of the story, she’s supposed to guess which of the three is her mother. The setup for this is amusing enough—Maya has just learned about sex and wants a more honest story than the fairy tale she’s heretofore been handed. Brooks’ script is quite adept at capturing that moment when a child starts to realize the reality of his or her parents.
The problem is the manner in which all manner of disillusionments—major and minor—have been packed into the space of a single night of storytelling. The deck feels stacked (because it is), and not even as reliable a child actor as Breslin can make it seem unforced. However, the stories of the three women—Emily (Elizabeth Banks, Fred Claus), April (Isla Fisher, Wedding Crashers) and Summer (Rachel Weisz)—are clever, charming and nicely put together. That it’s quickly no great mystery as to which one is Maya’s mother and which one Will really ought to be with is a minor concern—even though it’s clear that Brooks thinks he’s being more clever than he is. The conventions of the genre are adhered to too closely for the film to arrive at any conclusion other than the one it does.
Still, the three women are all likeable in their different ways, but more importantly, they all play well against Ryan Reynolds, who here is finally given a role worth his talents and considerable charisma (and without requiring him to show off his abs). The key to a good romantic comedy lies in creating characters the viewer really cares about, and Brooks pulls this off for the most part. There’s no doubt that Reynolds’ scenes with Isla Fisher are the most accomplished, or that those with Elizabeth Banks are the least. But they’re always believable, and they’re always pleasurable.
The funniest—and most cerebral—scenes are wisely given over to his encounters with Rachel Weisz (no one plays smart better than Weisz), and these are bolstered by the presence of a marvelously sarcastic Kevin Kline as Weisz’ mentor and lover. It’s easy to peg Weisz’ character as a little derivative of the role she played in About a Boy, and even easier to read Kline’s character as cut from the same cynical cloth as Bill Nighy in Love Actually. (Like Nighy, Kline is given the film’s funniest lines.) But these are still things that work in the context of the film, so why complain? Personally, I have more trouble with the out-of-proportion disillusionment Will suffers over the shortcomings of his original idol, Bill Clinton, though I realize this can be read as an extension of his greater disappointment with life in general.
The largest single problem lies in the unsurprising revelation of which woman is Maya’s mother—resulting in a combination of “I thought so” and “So what?” But this letdown is set to rights by the film’s final section, which manages to provide the ending we want without doing so too easily or, indeed, too conclusively. Bottom line is that Definitely, Maybe is a nice, entertaining little movie—something we see far too few of at this time of year. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, including some frank dialogue, language and smoking.