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Definitely Maybe

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[rating:3.5]
Director: Adam Brooks
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz

Ryan Reynolds—who probably gets asked for Jason Lee’s autograph a lot—is going through a divorce, and his 10-year-old daughter wants to know why, and ends up demanding the full story of her parents’ courtship. In a key conceit requiring a pretty significant suspension of disbelief, Reynolds gives the child a full account of his romantic liaisons from college through the present—and tells it in a way that he doesn’t reveal to her, or the audience, which of the women is the wife and mother he’s now divorcing.

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The film has two key flaws: You have to believe he’s telling this story, with this detail, in this oblique way, to a damned precocious little child. Also, like all romantic comedies, the third act requires a relationship breakdown through absurd misunderstandings—at least one lover must carry what in TV is derisively called the “idiot ball.” Plot complications and romantic angst are created by characters acting absurd only because the story needs them to do so. In this movie, it’s not quite that bad, and it’s par for the course in a romantic comedy, anyway.
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And if you can get past those two points, there are plenty of reasons to like Adam Brooks‘ new film.

The cast, for starters, is dead engaging. Abigail Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine,” is a really good actor. There is a scene after the mother’s identity is revealed when she sees her parents talking, far enough apart that she can’t hear them, and she sits there on her park bench with such palpable longing for her family to be repaired that it’s genuinely heartbreaking, and it’s nothing more than the look on her face.

Reynolds is very likable, and his range of failed loves is very engaging: A sweet girl-next-door Elizabeth Brooks, a quirky-hot Isla Fisher and a smart, sexy Rachel Weisz. Kevin Kline shows up playing the role he plays best—bombastic but lovable egomaniac, the guy you expect to be widely disliked by those he encounters, but who is disarmingly hilarious to those of us on this side of the fourth wall.
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Brooks directs a smartly paced film with an engaging plot (above caveats aside), but he doesn’t trust his audience. His weakness is as a writer: He repeatedly makes choices that are designed to hammer the obvious into the stupidest segment of the theater crowd. Example: One of Reynolds breakups comes when his job on a political campaign has him living in an NYC hotel room. His back-home girlfriend dumps him. When he and his roommate move out, we get an overhead shot of the room, all tangled white sheets and trash, nothing personal remaining—except Reynold’s photo of his now-ex, still framed on the nightstand. It’s a great moment that silently conveys his heartbreak. Unfortunately, it’s immediately followed by a closeup of said photo on said nightstand, making the audience wonder not how much Reynolds has been hurt, but how dumb Brooks thinks we are.

There’s also an oddly immoral hook, that’s not really necessary to make the film’s resolution work. One of Reynold’s women has been searching for something since childhood, an amazingly valuable relic of her relationship with her late father. Reynolds finds said relic, and is about to give it to her, but in an idiot-ball moment realizes he and this woman can’t have a relationship. Heartbroken, he takes the relic with him and keeps it for, like, a decade. Because he’s mopey about his love life. Such behavior is absolutely unconscionable, but the film pretty much glosses over that.

Still, the film’s narrative conceit—who’s the woman Reynolds ended up with, and how can he and his daughter find happiness now?—keeps the viewer guessing, and the solution is well-played. On the one hand, we know we want a happy ending, but on the other, we want to be surprised. Satisfying both is a trick that Brooks definitely pulls off, and maybe the movie’s drawbacks don’t have to stop the film from being what it is: a fairly forgettable bit of date-night fun.