Definitely, Maybe (review)

The Power of Romance

Listen carefully, because this is something I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard me say before, and chances are excellent that I will never say it again:

This is one of the greatest romantic dramedies ever made.

Wait, there’s more:

It’s an instant classic. The kind of movie people will still be devouring and marveling at and leaking happy tears over a century from now.
I know, I know. It’s crazy. I don’t say things like this, not about movies that Hollywood — Hollywood! (though, hmm, this is a joint production with a couple European film companies) — wants us to believe are romantic and also funny, even if only in that doesn’t-the-bittersweetness-of-life-make-ya-wanna-cry dramedy kind of funny. And I hate that I sound like an ad for the movie, like I’m speaking in exclamation points. But still. Sometimes there’s no avoiding that.

I’m pretty stunned right now. I mean, Ryan Reynolds is in this. Van Wilder himself. This is an actor who appeared in a “romantic comedy” called Buying the Cow. It’s one thing that I’ve still barely gotten over the fact that he was in a little movie last year called The Nines that only I and the filmmaker’s mother saw (and I’m not sure about her), and that he wasn’t half bad, and now I’m all, like, a little bit in love with him. It’s crazy. But this is why I adore The Movies. Because you just never know where the next amazing one is going to come from, and sometimes it’s even better when they come from a quarter that floors you, like from Adam Brooks, who adapted and directed the very intriguing and little-seen The Invisible Circus in 2001 but who has also written some less than satisfying romantic dramedies such as Wimbledon and Practical Magic.

And when I say “classic,” I do mean in that old-fashioned, little-bit-screwball, little bit Cary Grant-and-Irene Dunne kind of way. Which is weird, because everyone here, characters and actors alike — Reynolds and his leading ladies Rachel Weisz, Elizabeth Banks, and Isla Fisher, all of whom are incredible and luscious and impossible not to fall in love with for their own unique and peculiar idiosyncrasies — are completely modern and 21st century. They don’t feel old-fashioned, but the elegance and sweet cinematic magic of their “mystery love story” reminded me in some ethereal way of how movies used to feel in eras long before I and Ryan Reynolds and Rachel Weisz and everyone were even born. Well, that and the fresh charm and the genuine emotion, which is all but absent in the vast sea of vapidness that typically passes for romance on film today. Definitely, Maybe is so much its own creature that it doesn’t even come across as a riposte to its lesser contemporary genre fellows. It’s simply effortlessly enchanting as if there were no other way to be.

Its exquisiteness comes through, also, in the unique way its story is told: On the eve of her parents’ divorce, gradeschooler Maya Hayes (Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin) demands that her father, Will (Reynolds, and I still can’t believe I’m calling him a hugely appealing romantic leading man, but there we are), tell her the story of how he met her mother, the woman he is splitting from. So he does. But he doesn’t make it easy for Maya: her bedtime story is full of romantic red herrings thrown in for suspense’s sake, and delight’s. We learn not merely of Will’s relationship with the woman who will become his wife and mother of his child but of lovelorn entanglements in the boom times of the 1990s with three beautiful and complicated women — his college sweetheart (Banks: Fred Claus, Spider-Man 3), a sexually freespirited journalist (Weisz: Fred Claus, Eragon), and a creative slacker who’s oil to his water (Fisher: Hot Rod, The Lookout) — one of whom will turn out to be Maya’s mom. The child, of course, knows her mother, but Dad changes some details — like names — so that Maya, and we, are left guessing till the last moment who he ended up with, who he’s now ending with, which is just right. And which also adds just the right kind of piquancy, because these kinds of movies always pretend that finding the love of your life is the end of your story, not merely the beginning of a new adventure that may not end happily.

And then there’s even further subversion of the tropes of romantic flicks to come after that… not the least of which revolves around how being in love with your kids and their impossible oddnesses and wonderfulnesses is a romance in its own right.

Could be it’s not just the magnificently satisfying sentiment pulled off most gracefully that feels deliciously old-fashioned: there’s a heady nostalgia at play here, too. A onetime Clinton campaign worker, during that first 1992 presidential run, Will is nowadays an advertising executive selling sugary cereal to kids: but he misses those days “before e-mail and cell phones and reality TV,” when optimism ruled and everyone was singing “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” and we had yet to become the hard, insular people we are today. And of course all that is both a funny-weird smack-in-the-face reminder of how things can seem so much better in retrospect than they actually were — who’da thunk the Clinton impeachment, as Will’s story moves forward through the decade, would seem quaint? or that the 1990s were actually so remarkably roaring and carefree? — and a clear acknowledgement of the power of invented nostalgia.

For the bulk of the movie is made up of Will’s slightly fictionalized flashbacks, and it’s not that he’s untrustworthty: he’s just like all of us, who shape our own stories to our own needs. Which calls into question how much of Will’s stories of his lost loves — and the one he didn’t lose — are strictly accurate. Like many great films, this one is overtly about the power of its own story. Like not enough stories of romance, this one is about the power of romantic fiction itself.

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