'Definitely, Maybe,' not worth it

Ryan Reynolds and Abigail Breslin star in a new romantic comedy, which unwinds like a somewhat improbable Hollywood fairy tale.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Storytime: Abigail Breslin (l.) and Ryan Reynolds star in 'Definitely, Maybe,' a comedy awash in a mediocre mix of corn and giggles.
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The romantic comedy "Definitely, Maybe" is as memorable as its title. A lot of talented people are awash in this mediocre mix of corn and giggles.

Ryan Reynolds plays New York ad man Will Hayes who, much to the befuddlement of his 10-year-old daughter Maya (a too-precious Abigail Breslin), is getting a divorce. In their first scene together, he picks her up from school, where she has just emerged from her first sex education class. Improbably – but we're in Hollywood after all – this leads Maya on a quest to discover how her parents met and fell in love.

Instead of just telling her – which would have shortened the movie considerably – Will devises a kind of bedtime fairy tale in which he recounts his romances with the three women who have meant the most in his life: his college sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks); April (Isla Fisher), a ditsy co-worker in the days when he was working on the Bill Clinton campaign; and acerbic journalist Summer (Rachel Weisz). Because Will has changed their names, it's up to Maya (and us) to figure out who among the three is her mother.

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This once-upon-a-time premise is marred by the rather unseemly way it plays out. Will doesn't exactly airbrush his reminiscences. (At one low point, Maya asks Will, "What's a threesome?") No matter who the mother may be, there's a lot of material here that a more-aware father would have deemed inappropriate for his 10-year-old daughter.

But of course, the stories are really being recounted for our benefit, not hers.

Will moved from Wisconsin to New York in 1992 to work on the Clinton campaign, leaving Emily behind. (You'd think from this film that Wisconsin was the acme of the boonies.) His political idealism is tested when, as time moves on, Clinton's sexual peccadilloes surface and Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky grab the spotlight. Writer-director Adam Brooks is trying for a "Broadcast News"-style scenario in which personal crackups occur against a highly public backdrop. Will's romantic disillusionment is keyed to Clinton's fall from grace.

Coming as it does at the height of the primary season, "Definitely, Maybe" may have unintended consequences. If it turns out to be a hit, this movie can't possibly help the Hillary Clinton campaign, but the McCain and Obama camps must be salivating. No doubt Brooks intended the Clinton subplot to express a larger view of "forgive and move on," but that's not how it comes across. Will's romantic snafus are simply not in the same ecosystem as Clinton's.

Reynolds does well enough in a weakly written role, but he may be one of those actors who looks like a movie star without really being one. (On the other hand, I said the same thing about Tom Cruise when he started out.) He has the advantage, however, of being cast opposite a couple of terrific actresses, and a terrific actor, Kevin Kline, who has a funny cameo as a besotted academic whose latest tome is entitled "The Decline of Almost Everything." (Hasn't somebody already written this book?)

Banks is capable of displaying the hairline fractures in her hometown beauty queen persona. Weisz can play a tough cookie who also knows how to crumble. Best of all is Isla Fisher, who brings such verve to her line readings that you never know where the comic accent is going to fall. She fills out her character's quirks and becomes quite touching – she makes you feel bad about ever sizing up April as a ditz.

"Definitely, Maybe" isn't terrible exactly, but it's bland, and in some ways that's worse. It's a romance posing as a detective story in which the solution is obvious and not worth the fuss.

Grade: C

Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language, and smoking.

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