“Definitely, Maybe”, the new film from writer – director Adam Brooks (who has written a number of screenplays including “Wimbledon”) and producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner (“Atonement”, “Notting Hill”, “About A Boy”) is a pretty dismal failure.
Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds, “Just Friends”, “Blade: Trinity”) is a divorced dad who looks forward to the days when he gets to pick up his daughter, Maya (Abigail Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine”). But when he arrives at the school, he finds a number of parents up in arms; “Did YOU know they were going to teach sex ed today?” Maya greets him by asking about various body parts and they begin an awkward discussion leading to story about how Will met Maya’s mom. But Will has had three loves in his life and they are part of the story about how he and her mom met, so he decides to change all of their names and let Maya guess who her mom is. They make some hot chocolate and Will tucks her into bed before beginning the story of his life, from 1992 to the present. Leaving his college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks, “The 40 Year Old Virgin”) in Minnesota, he travels to New York to work for the Clinton Campaign. He quickly meets April (Isla Fisher, “Wedding Crashers”, “The Lookout”), the girl who makes copies at campaign headquarters, and they begin to talk and flirt. Later, he meets Summer (Rachel Weisz) and her boyfriend, Hampton Roth (Kevin Kline) who is also her thesis advisor. Emily, the girlfriend in Minnesota asked him to deliver a book belonging to Summer, so he does his duty. Naturally, over the course of the next decade, he continues relationships with each of these women, experiencing the natural highs and unnatural lows, and vice versa, inherent in movie romance clichés.
There are two really big problems with “Definitely, Maybe”. The first is Ryan Reynolds. He is so completely ‘blah’ as Will Hayes it is difficult to muster any feeling for him, almost as difficult as it seems to be for the actor to muster any emotion for anything in the story. He walks through the entire film with a glum look on his face. Worse, he never seems genuinely interested in any of the three women, let alone the woman who he marries and becomes Maya’s mother.
Because the film tells the story of Will’s relationships with these three women, and they see each other off and on over the course of almost two decades, you would expect to see some fireworks, occasionally, as he dates these three women. What keeps them interested in each other? We have to see some sort of evidence of what would make these four people continue to want to see each other and, quite honestly, there is none. The three female actors make a game attempt to display some chemistry. But their attentions are unrewarded. As they laugh, giggle and practically jump on top of Reynold’s character, he merely stands stoically, and seems to want to discuss a good book or the newest television show.
Because he never shows any emotion, it is all but impossible to feel for his character, and give two figs whether he marries any of these women. They all deserve better.
The filmmakers go to great pains to make Will seem like a great father. He seems to look forward to the days he gets to pick Maya up, and seems to relish his time with her. But as soon as he meets her at her school, he seems burdened by her. He never smiles when they are together. And telling the story of how he met her mother just seems to be a chore. Naturally, he would be a little reluctant to tell her about his previous loves (he doesn’t want to slip up and talk about sex, for instance), but this continues throughout the entire film. And if he is so reluctant to talk about these previous relationships why do it? Because without this story, there would be no film. Or it would be a radically different film. Maybe a better film. But the filmmaker is intent on having the story framed as a bedtime story for his daughter, so there we have it.
Each of the three leads makes a game attempt to create a fully realized, believable character. Each has a distinct personality and has their pros and cons. In fact, it almost seems like the filmmaker is splitting one believable character into the three, giving each a pronounced distinct trait that one woman might display some of the time. Because each of these women is so attached to this trait, they become less believable as the film grinds through its overly long story.
Rachel Weisz (Summer Hartley) fares the best of the three. Her character, Summer, is the woman who Will’s college sweetheart knows. Emily asks Will to deliver a book to her in New York. Curiosity gets the better of him and he opens the book to reveal her diary. When he arrives at her address to make the delivery, he finds Hampton Roth (Kevin Kline), a college professor, greeting him, wearing a half open robe. Will assumes he is her father, her eccentric father, and they start drinking. Then, she returns and wakes Will up, revealing the professor is her thesis advisor and boy friend. Thus begins their relationship and over the course of the film, the three meet occasionally, and Will falls in love with her. Throughout, she is the most interesting because she is the least predictable, to a point.
Elizabeth Banks plays Emily, Will’s college sweetheart. She is, probably the most predictable character. But there is something about Banks that makes me watch her every minute I see her on screen. She generally plays characters that are very sweet and use their laugh to hide mixed emotions and pain. Because she is usually able to reveal these traits in a subtle manner, it makes me think she might have a couple of great roles in her, maybe down the road a bit, but I think she might have something hiding deep down inside, just waiting to explode. When she has the right character, in the right film. In “Maybe”, her character stays true to form. But she makes predictable choices and ‘mistakes’ and shows up at predictable times.
Isla Fisher is also interesting, and also a free spirit. When Will first meets her, he learns April is simply working at the campaign headquarters to make money. She doesn’t have strong feelings, one way or another about the candidate. This perplexes Will as he has moved to New York to work for this candidate. This is what is called a “meet-cute” moment and it is about as cute as they get. Over the course of their time together, Will learns of this one item, a hard to find item that she has been looking for for years. What do you suppose might happen if he found that item? Do you think he might?
Kevin Kline is the most interesting, lively character in the entire film. A bombastic, egotistical professor, Kline still manages to make us like Hampton. It’s a shame he isn’t around more, the film would have benefited greatly from more of Kevin Kline. I have a fever, and the prescription is more Kevin Kline.
Abigail Breslin is stuck in a rut. In “Little Miss Sunshine”, she played a cute girl in a biting comedy laced with black humor. Since then, she has merely played a variety of cute girls, without the dark humor to mute her saccharin characters. “Maybe” is no exception to this rule. The only surprise is how little she is in the film. Given the film is largely told in flashback, before her parent’s meet, and therefore, conceive her, she doesn’t have a lot of screen time.
A significant portion of the story is devoted to Will and his work. He moves to New York in 1992 to work at Clinton’s campaign headquarters. So throughout the film, we see Bill Clinton’s face. This isn’t a bad thing, but it doesn’t have a lot to do with the story. Later, when Will and his friends get together, after the Monica Lewinsky scandal breaks, they briefly talk about whether they would vote for him. Yet, there is never a significant reason for this campaign to be a part of the film. Later, Will and his partner (Derek Luke) go to work for a New York mayoral candidate (who ran the Clinton campaign). This character is fictionalized and it would have been very easy to make up a fictional candidate to replace Clinton. Because he is featured throughout, but for little reason, he becomes little more than a diversion, something to divert our attention from the main story. If you are going to use such a iconic character as a backdrop for your story, it needs to play more of a role in the overall context, or his story needs to mirror a specific part of the film.
“Definitely, Maybe” is, more than anything, a disappointing film. It gets so much wrong, on so many levels that you have to wonder what happened to the producers who brought us films like “Notting Hill”, “About a Boy” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. Maybe, Definitely they weren’t quite as hands on with this film as they should’ve been. Or maybe they need Hugh Grant or Julie Roberts to make their films work? Maybe. But I’m definitely positive this film doesn’t work. Maybe on any level.