The Reeler


February 14, 2008

Definitely, Maybe

Brooks loves the '90s in his nicely structured, sweet-toothed romantic comedy

A friend of mine expressed her outrage recently over a commercial she had seen for Definitely, Maybe, Adam Brooks's highly serviceable romantic comedy. She almost choked on her Cheetohs when the announcer declared Definitely, Maybe to be "the funniest romantic comedy since Annie Hall." First of all, she said, Annie Hall is not a comedy, and anyone who implies otherwise is a boob or a disingenuous biter, i.e., a Hollywood marketer. And what age of temerity must we live in, she wondered, when it's okay to sling references to vintage Woody Allen in the same breath as a vehicle for Van Wilder and the screechy-bopper from Little Miss Sunshine?

That's what I would call airtight outrage, and having seen the film I would hardly try to argue her out if it. What is surprising about Definitely, Maybe, however, is how uninsulted my friend might be were she to crack, at some future, desperate date, and give it a try. It goes down easy, to be sure -- like Jell-o, though not the synthetic, sugar-free kind; the calories may be empty, but at least they're there. She, like me, came of age in the '90s, if a few years behind Will Hayes, the earnest college graduate who leaves the midwest, and his faithful girl Emily (Elizabeth Banks) to move to New York and work on Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. And so for our cohort the period patina of the '90s (the Kurt Cobain reference -- and callback -- is about as painful as it could be, but I can't tell you how much I appreciated the appearance of Vanessa Williams's "Saved the Best For Last") amounts to added value in a largely charming and engagingly structured film.

Will is a NYC ad writer in the midst of a divorce, whose daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) reaches near-toxic levels of precocity in her pleas to hear the story of how he met the woman who would become her mother. Will not only relents but decides to go along, telling the story in its entirety, which means including all the close calls and also-rans muddying the field of his line drive to true love. Except, of course, that it wasn't true love -- or at least not enduring love -- and that built-in narrative trip-wire gives the sometimes cloying buoyancy of the structure (there are several cuts from the extensive flashbacks to Maya, wide eyed on the bed and asking things like, "What's a threesome?") some grounding. In the midst of all the sharp-elbowed sparring and more meet-cutes than the Westminster Dog Show is the reminder that the winner of our bachelor bake-off didn't live happily ever after, after all.

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A true Clinton believer, the birth of Will's adman career can be traced to the fundraising phone call in which he learns how to successfully bullshit a donor into a fifty-thousand dollar dinner with Bill and Hill. The throughline of Will's disillusionment with Clinton as his win and two terms play out is nicely paralleled with the loss of innocence, or at least innocent enthusiasm, that make one's 20s such a treat. Lost as well is Emily, whose college friend Summer (Rachel Weisz) becomes a solid contender, along with campaign copy girl April (Isla Fisher). Summer is a craven writer type with an appropriately craven writer/thesis adviser boyfriend; Kevin Kline is truly awesome as Hampton Roth, a whole cloth cliché who thinks bedding two freshmen adds up to a sophomore and publishes tracts with titles like The Decline of Almost Everything.

What Definitely, Maybe gets right, aside from super-watchable, strong performances all around (Reynolds is still antic but finally accessible, Fisher is impossibly lovely, wearing her irresistible high spirits lightly, as though they might give way at any moment to a beachhead of heartache), is the astonishingly circuitous path that love and the people we love can take in our lives, and how puzzling and random it can all seem, looking back. Who ends up with whom and why is a brain-sozzler for all time, and I give Brooks credit for taking a fresh and fairly satisfying survey of a heart wanting what it wants, thinking it wants what it doesn't want, wanting the first thing again and then waking up to what it needs.

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