“Definitely, Maybe” is the story of the three great loves of a man’s life. That’s “story” in the literal sense, as in the bedtime story he tells his young daughter, who wants to know how he met her mother and, implicitly, why they are getting divorced.
Ryan Reynolds plays the idealistic Will Hayes, who relives his romantic life after receiving his final divorce papers, trying to figure out how he got where he is and what to do next. His daughter Maya (Little Miss Sunshine‘s Abigail Breslin), just out of her first sex education class, asks him how he met her mother, and he answers by telling her about all three of the women he loved, making her guess which one became his wife. Both of them realize that it is not really how they met but a better understanding of what went wrong that matters.
There is his college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks), who stays behind in Madison, Wisconsin when he goes to work for Bill Clinton’s first Presidential campaign in 1992. There is April (Wedding Crashers‘s Isla Fisher), the apolitical free spirit who runs the copy machine at the campaign headquarters. And there is Summer (Rachel Weisz), open, sexy, but complicated. There is hope and betrayal and there is good and bad timing. And there are many, many references to historical and technological changes to remind us that time is passing. Marvel at the giant cell phone! Remember Monica Lewinsky!
Both Will the character and Reynolds the actor leave an empty space at the center of the movie. Will is not that engaging a character and Reynolds is not that involving an actor. There are a couple of moments when he looks pained or unhappy, but he does not have the range or charisma for the role. Fisher, Banks, and Weisz are all exceptionally talented actors who struggle with an under-written script and do their best to make the women they play more than a list of characteristics whose entrances and exits overwhelm their storylines. Halfway through Kevin Kline shows up in a performance of such vitality and honesty that it shows how two-dimensional the rest of the movie is. The effort to tie Will’s journey from idealist to sadder but wiser to the disillusionment of the Clinton sex scandals is awkward and heavy-handed.
And there is something unnerving about the premise. In 21st century America, is there a school that would spring sex ed on 9-year-olds without advising and consulting the parents? No grade school curriculum would include the vocabulary and concepts this movie posits just to make it funny for Maya to use those words. Will’s sharing the stories of his romantic life with Maya is supposed to be charming, but from here it looks like some serious boundary issues; for a guy who is supposed to be a loving father, he seems to be using her to make himself feel good. Will also seems clueless much of the time about what he wants and who these women really are. It has the gloss and rhythms of a Hollywood date movie, but no real understanding of or ability to convey what relationships really feel like. It is intended to be a bittersweet love story, but it is perhaps more bitter than sweet and ultimately as equivocal as its title.
Parents should know that this film includes sexual references from adults and children with explicit language, references to infidelity, some non-explicit sexual situations, smoking, drinking, including drinking to excess, sad off-screen deaths, sad divorce
Families who see this movie should ask family members how they met their spouses. What kinds of things tell you when someone is right for you?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy French Kiss, by the same screenwriter, and When Harry Met Sally.