Definitely, Maybe (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

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.

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll measure. If you’re not a spammer or a troll, your comment will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately.
notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Ide Cyan
Ide Cyan
Tue, Feb 12, 2008 11:09am

Sounds like the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother”.

MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Feb 12, 2008 11:25am

I’ve never seen the show, but there’s nothing sitcomish about this movie.

Tue, Feb 12, 2008 12:49pm

Well, MaryAnn, I am surprised. I would never have even THOUGHT about seeing this movie! And now? Well, now it’s on my must-see list. I’m so intrigued!

Nayana Anthony
Tue, Feb 12, 2008 1:23pm

Oh, yay! Well I guess I’ll have to see it then, won’t I?

Laurie D. T. Mann
Tue, Feb 12, 2008 2:58pm

There have been two trailers (trailers! mind you), that have made me sniffle over the last few months.

One is John Cusack in “Grace is Gone,” when he calls his answering machine just to hear his dead wife’s voice. However, I didn’t wind up seeing that movie. Yet, anyway. May Netflix it once it’s out on DVD.

The other is when Ryan Reynolds says, “I’m happy,” and Abigail Breslin looks him straight in the eye and says, “Trust me, Dad, you’re not happy” in the trailer for “Definitely, Maybe.” The tone in her voice, the look on her face, is just perfect. With every movie, Breslin becomes a scarily great actress.

Thanks for telling me I should see this movie. Between Breslin and Weiz (I’ve never seen Reynolds in a movie), I thought I might go (heck, I even liked “No Reservations”). Now, it’s not definitely, maybe I’ll go, but definitely, definitely I’ll go!

Tue, Feb 12, 2008 5:59pm

I loved *No Reservations* too. I’m fine with romances as long as they deal with people as creatures of genuine emotion and even genuine lust: you know, that have real romance in them. Most movies about romance are terribly unromantic.

*Grace Is Gone* is nice, and has a wonderful non-Cusacky performance from Cusack, but it never moved me enough to even sniffle. I definitely shed a few tears — happy tears — over this one.

Tue, Feb 12, 2008 10:42pm

Damn it, you’ve sold me. I wasn’t planning on it, but now I’ll have to see it this week.

Wed, Feb 13, 2008 11:53am

Based on the trailer I never would have guessed this is a good movie. It’s nice to be surprised once in awhile! It does kinda sound like “How I Met Your Mother”, but that show is okay for a sitcom, so I can deal with a decent film using the same premise, I s’pose.

Fri, Feb 15, 2008 12:58am

Just got back from it. Freaking fantastic! Thanks for making me want to watch it, MaryAnn! Happy Single Awareness Day! :P

Tim G.
Tim G.
Sun, Feb 17, 2008 7:48pm

Jeez MaryAnn, warn a guy to sit down before dropping a bombshell like that at the beginning of the interview. Heh, I actually couldn’t agree more. After sitting through Jumper (ugh) and Spiderwick Chronicles (cute family fare, be it a tad cliche), I wasn’t sure I had third movie in me today. I’m so glad I stuck it out and bought the ticket for Definitely, Maybe. It was nice to leave the theater on a high note like that.

Tim G.
Tim G.
Sun, Feb 17, 2008 7:49pm

And I totally meant “review” not “interview.”


Mon, Feb 18, 2008 11:40am

I was also impressed by this movie, but thought “No Reservations” a pale reflection, even as these things tend to go, of the original “Mostly Martha.”

Mon, Feb 18, 2008 12:43pm

“I’ve never seen the show, but there’s nothing sitcomish about this movie.”

Terrific movie, I agree–but the above quote? Not quite true–and actually, that’s a proveable statement. To prove it, though, you’ll need to join me for a session of Shoop’s Sitcoms 101 Seminar. Follow me, won’t you? Plenty of room.

Today’s topic is one of the most common and easily recognizable sitcom tropes: the Gilligan Gambit, named for Sherwood Schwartz’s classic examination of society in microcosm, “Gilligan’s Island.” To illustrate, let me turn the class over to Gilligan and the Skipper.
SKIPPER: Gilligan, you’re going to have to put on that dress.
GILLIGAN: I’m not wearing a dress. You can’t make me, you can’t make me.
CUT TO: Gilligan wearing a dress.

See how that works? Gilligan protests vehemently that he won’t do something, and in the following scene, we find him doing it. Now, let’s see how you do with a couple of scenes from “Definitely, Maybe.”

1. Our protagonist, WILL, finds himself in possession of a diary–obviously very personal, and potentially quite racy. His friend encourages Will to read it immediately.
WILL: It’s a diary. I’m not reading it. That would be wrong.
Now–can you guess what Will does in the next scene? If you said, “He reads the diary, Mr. Shoop,” then give yourself an A. Here’s one more–a little trickier, because there isn’t a “CUT TO,” and the denial is more implicit than explicit. The Gilligan Gambit principle, however, still applies:
2. WILL is now seated next to a smart, sexy gal who has clearly piqued his interest, even though he’s planning to propose to someone else the following day.
WILL: It’s nice that we can just sit here without worrying about any sort of sexual tension.
Now, applying the Gilligan Gambit, what happens between Will and the young woman about two seconds later? Hum the “Jeopardy” theme for a few moments while you think about it. Think you’ve got it? Well, if you said, “They start to kiss with great ardor and passion, Mr. Shoop,” then you’ve aced the midterm. *END OF SPOILERS*

As I said earlier, I enjoyed this movie a great deal. Using sitcom rhythms doesn’t necessarily make a movie inferior, or lazy, or bad in any way. It’s all in how and why they’re used. For homework: Quinn Cummings in “The Goodbye Girl,” Jodie Sweetin from “Full House,” and Abigail Breslin (“Definitely, Maybe,” et al.): compare and contrast. See you next time.

Mon, Feb 18, 2008 8:05pm

Sitcoms rely on situation, not character. This movie is about character, even if some of the scenarios they find themselves in bear passing resemblance to sitcom situations.

thought “No Reservations” a pale reflection, even as these things tend to go, of the original “Mostly Martha.”

As did I, and said as much in my review.

Albert Hahn
Albert Hahn
Fri, Feb 22, 2008 12:48am

Happy to finally find someone that gives this movie its due.
Like Danielle, I didn’t want to see it because
of the trailer. But I finally ran out of movies
to see and let the 70% thumbs up reviews
persuade me to invest two hours.
Abigail Breslin (who just annoyed me
in that horrible Little Miss Sunshine)
now makes me take note of her.
I am reminded of the exact moment I made
a point of checking out the name of
the little actress in Alice Doesn’t Live
Here Anymore. It was when she uttered
the line “Weird…..*weird*”.
In the closing credits I noted that
her name was Jody Foster.
Anyway, Reynolds (whom I can’t remember seeing before) was a perfect straight man
for Breslin, Weisz and Isla Fisher.

Laurie D. T. Mann
Sat, Feb 23, 2008 6:29pm

We finally saw it today, and while we generally enjoyed it, it failed my “If you can’t get the simple things right” test…

Here’s my beef, and it’s about what happens when you work on political campaigns. If you are sent from one state to another and put up in a hotel for weeks, you are not going to be “toilet paper boy.” I can’t imagine there being a $12 an hour copier-runner in a campaign now, much less in 1992. Those are both the sort of jobs the high school, college kids and interns get, who are there working for free. I know because I’ve had those kids of jobs on campaigns.

And, campaigners not wearing their candidate’s button almost constantly on their lapels? Let’s be real!

Now, some of the campaign stuff was spot on – the long hours, the chaos, the big open office, the ra-ra nature of the enterprise. And, certainly, later on, another campaign collapsing very rapidly amid bitterness and recriminations.

I wish the leading male had been as charismatic as the four leading females!

Rebecca Dalmas
Rebecca Dalmas
Mon, Oct 21, 2013 3:28pm

Just about to watch/listen to this yet again…fun to read your review on it for the first time. Love the movie.