DEFINITELY, MAYBE is a romantic comedy with bite as it follows the adventures of Will Hayes, a guy who started out thinking that he had it all figured out, and who, of course, didn’t. Rising above the commonplace and the cliché, it’s wry, smart and just sentimental enough to warm the cockles of an audience’s collective heart while skirting the treacherous shoals of the mawkish.
Ryan Reynolds is the guy in question, newly divorced, deeply disturbed to find his life devoted to lauding breakfast cereal, and coping with the fallout from the straightforward sex-ed class that his precocious 11-year-old daughter, Maya (Abigail Breslin), has just experienced. She’s made of fairly stern stuff, but the question of how a classmate could have been an accident leads to the story of how Will met Maya’s mother. It’s not a story he’s in the mood to tell with the ink barely dry on the divorce papers, but Maya’s insistence wears him down. He agrees, but he insists on the provision that he will change the names of the three women who loomed large in his past, fudge on some of the details, and not reveal which woman became Maya’s mother until the end.
Yes, the mystery love story, as Maya dubs it, is a precious conceit, but it’s handled with a bright and insouciant impudence. The dialogue is sharp, the performances lively, with Reynolds reinventing himself as a credible romantic lead, all the more endearing for being flawed. The women in question are interesting in their own right, with actresses who shine with complexity. Elizabeth Banks is Emily, the dewy-eyed college sweetheart left behind in Madison when he goes to New York to work for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and not sure that she’s on board with Will’s political ambitions. Isla Fischer is April, the bohemian making copies at Clinton headquarters for the money and who is not shy about sharing her nihilistic views on politics and relationships. Rachel Weisz is Summer, the ambitious neophyte journalist who doesn’t let her living arrangements with her thesis adviser (Kevin Kline) stop her from planting a big sloppy wet one on Will’s lips just to see what it would be like.
The mystery love story stays just that, with some nice red herrings and a few genuine surprises, all the while setting up an ending that isn’t so much obvious as a welcome payoff. Obvious, that is, to everyone except Will, even while he’s telling it. Even Maya, in the running commentary that intercuts the flashbacks, shows more insight into what happened before she was born than Will did or does, living or reliving the action. Breslin, nominated for an Oscar® for her work in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, brings a solemn and self-assured earnestness to this role, while showing the same preternatural sense of timing, both comic and poignant. The other supporting roles are equally bracing, with Kline topping the list, brilliant in an extended cameo as a curmudgeon with a weakness for young girls, hard liquor, and hearing himself talk.
DEFINITELY, MAYBE uses light touch as it hones in on the messy business of falling in love, falling out of love, and getting the timing right for both. It doesn’t have any great revelations, but it does make the small ones seem profound.