One really does have to feel bad for the Romantic Comedy. It’s a genre that’s life support system is more or less irretrievably broken. Of course, part of the problem lies in the two categories it contains. By its very nature, big screen humor has been running on empty for almost a decade. Besides, it’s hard to find love inside a stratagem consisting of tawdry gross out gags and juvenile Jokes from the John. And then there’s the ‘Moon/June’ part of the picture. In 2008, we no longer comport to the ‘love and marriage’ ideals of relationships. Instead, like the rest of our overcomplicated lives, we want to micromanage affection, leaving it less like a sunny summer sentiment and more like an emotional wash. Leave it to this past February’s Definitely, Maybe to try and revive the flat-lining film style. That it almost works is a testament to the category’s - and creator’s - staying power.
Former political consultant turned ad executive Will Hayes should have a wonderful life. His career choice has found him working on high profile campaigns for former President Bill Clinton, and now he’s a big success. He’s also got a precocious little daughter named Maya who just adores him. But when it comes to his love life, Will is always on the losing side. On the verge of a divorce from his wife, he is confronted by his inquisitive child, her questions framed around his seemingly failed romances. Agreeing to explain his past, with one small exception (he will change the women’s names), Will begins by outlining his exploits, starting with college sweetheart, Emily. After he moves to NYC, he finds himself embroiled in elections, and an affair with the idealistic Summer. Finally, he hooks up with April, an ambitious copy girl who seems to challenge his very purpose. It’s up to Maya to put together the clues, and discover who her mother represents…and if there’s a chance to save her freefalling family.
All throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Hollywood was convinced that the only way to make love stories truly work was to dress them up in outrageous, high concept fantasy. Unless you were Woody Allen, Tinsel Town thought you needed otherworldly help in creating something quixotic. Be it literally bewitched gals pining for a ‘mortal’ man, or angels desperate to connect with their humorless human charges, real people just can’t get together anymore. Instead, certain types - either freakishly fictional or meet cute manipulative - have to be devised, and then their escapes framed around a certain narrative device (frequently fashioned after an old school cinematic tearjerker) to get dates to dish out the dollars. Happily, Definitely, Maybe (new to DVD from Universal) avoids some of these pitfalls, instead hoping that a post-modern nostalgia guides the audience’s affections.
Thanks to the capable direction of Adam Brooks and a stellar cast including Ryan Reynolds as the put upon Will, Abigail Breslin as his daughter Maya, and a trio of charming fantasy gals - Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Isla Fisher - this fluffy piece of celluloid cotton candy has a tad more heft that your average heartstring strainer. By using the unique (if slightly wonky) narrative device of presenting all three ladies as possible partners, we get a much more viable view of how love and loss works. Even better, the political backing and time warp realizations (this is the early ‘90s, when grunge is still a novelty and Bill Clinton represents the future of America) aid in our sense of recognition. Unlike other RomComs that rely on ancient concepts of companionship to meter out their meaning, Definitely, Maybe tracks a more contemporary, quasi-ironic bent.
Most of this is done on purpose. As part of the full length audio commentary offered as part of the digital package, Brooks defends the whodunit like story structure, arguing that it helps sustain a focus as well as a certain likeability rooting interest in what is going on. One of the reasons the film functions so efficiently is that we see where Will made his mistakes, as well as the pain they caused. There is also the genuineness generated by Breslin. As one of the best child stars of her generation, she creates a kind of psychic sphere of influence, her perception reflecting our own take on the material. Through her, we sense the sentimentality in her father’s predicament, and hope for the genre-mandated happy ending.
Again, it’s the performances that support our attention. Reynolds, who can be a bit too jock cocky in his mannerism, finds a perfect balance between machismo and melancholy. Though he never comes across as lame, he’s definitely a leading man in training. As for his female co-stars, all create the necessary sense of boy/girl balance. Weisz in particular seems an expert at both the seduction and the send-off, while Elizabeth Banks’ Parker Posing could be toned down a bit. After an introductory sequence where she discovers the particulars of sex (it’s part of her school’s new educational regime), Breslin isn’t given much more to do. But thanks to the aforementioned openness in her expressions, we instantly forgive the limits.
Oddly enough, when viewed as a whole, Definitely, Maybe isn’t all that impactful. In fact, the reason Allen’s name gets tossed into the mix is that, with films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, the American auteur managed to mix humor with heartbreak in a way that seemed to resonate on a more universal, communal level. Even those of us who never lived a day in an uptown loft understood the pleasures and problems his characters were going through. Brooks is clearly no Wood-man, but he’s also not one of the numerous hacks who hopelessly exploit the inherent value of a screen kiss to contemplate all manner of middling to miserable contrivances. There are a lot worse things for a post-millennial RomCom to be besides ‘enjoyable’, and yet that’s an apt description of this film’s pixie stick commerciality. It may not be a dense, delectable treat, but while it’s around, Definitely, Maybe is pleasant enough.