It’s hard for me to understand why movies like Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Pretty Woman or When Harry Met Sally are considered the great modern romantic comedies of the day. But whether I like it or not, and despite the fact that as many people love them as loathe them, I’m afraid they are here to stay. I suspect that these movies hit a genuine note with a certain segment of the public because people are able to find something relatable in them; to me, most of the lines ring false, that unquantifiable Nora Ephronesitc quality makes my teeth ache, and — for the life of me — I can’t figure out why Billy Crystal didn’t sneak under the table and slip out the back shamefacedly when Meg Ryan famously faked an orgasm over lunch. That whole scene triggers mild agoraphobia in me.
But perhaps Definitely, Maybe is my Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally — a movie that may not satisfy everyone, but that strikes a chord with a lot of us nonetheless. Because let’s be honest: Those of us looking for a great love story, especially on a day like today (cynics, communists, Tequilamasts, and embittered loners be damned) aren’t seeking brutal reality, we’re just hoping for a solid piece of escapism wrapped around a scintilla of truth, something with an authentic ring, that digs into our chests to poke and prod at our love muscles. Preferably without simultaneously insulting our intelligence. For people of a certain age or a certain mentality, Definitely, Maybe just may be that movie: A film that manages to join the other “modern rom-com classics,” if only by being identifiable to at least 51 percent of us.
Which means that 51 percent of us will have to relate to a romance that has little to do with love at first sight; that’s more than boy meets girl, falls in love with girl, loses girl, and wins her back. It’s more like boy meets girl A, loses girl A, meets girl B, loses girl B, and then falls in love with girl H. But more importantly, what Definitely, Maybe does in its own, sweet brightly lit studio romantic comedy sort of way, is to take traditional romantic conventions and —instead of turning them on their head, subverting them whimsically, or slapping a few dick-and-ball jokes around them — fleshes them out. I know this sounds utterly preposterous for a film that features Ryan Reynolds and Abigail Breslin, but Definitely, Maybe does what so few love stories do: It understands that the “one great love” or the “love of your life” is, more often than not, the product of years worth of relationships, both great and failed. And that the stupid, mini-fling you had with marriage back in your early 20s because you thought it’d make a great story someday was actually ultimately beneficial, because it brought you where you are today … blah blah blah … I’m getting sentimental.
By relying on the Clinton administration as the backdrop to the main storyline (those savvy bastards know how to kill a guy with nostalgia — Jesus Jones, y’all), Definitely, Maybe not so cleverly finds a way to tell a love story set in the 90s while also throwing a cute kid into the mix (don’t get me wrong, though: Abigail Breslin mops the floor with those Fanning girls). After a sex-education lesson at school, Maya (Breslin) badgers her advertising exec Dad, Will Hayes (Reynolds) into telling her the story of how he and her mom met. Will agrees, but only if he can change the names of the participants, giving Maya a chance to figure out which of three relationships ultimately resulted in her conception. What we also know, however, is that Will is about to divorce Maya’s mother, so we understand going into the series of flashbacks that make up the meat of the story that the woman he ultimately marries is now his ex-wife, which suffuses his tale with a certain amount of heartache.
The first woman, Emily (Elizabeth Banks), is his college sweetheart back at the University of Madison, who Will is forced to leave when he goes to NYC to work on the Clinton campaign. There, he meets Emily’s old college roommate (and lesbian fling), Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz), an aspiring journalist who is involved with her thesis advisor (Kevin Kline). He also meets April (Isla Fisher), who is initially working as a copy girl on the Clinton campaign. Over the next five years or so, Will gets involved to varying degrees with all three women, while in the present, little Maya is trying to figure out which of these women ends up being her mother. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the relationships (and thus give away the light mystery), except to say that, ultimately, the story takes you comfortably where you want to go. That’s what studio flicks do, after all. And let’s just be honest: That’s exactly what the kind of person that goes to see Definitely, Maybe wants: A love story that satisfies our preconceived notions about romance.
What’s remarkable about Definitely, Maybe, however, is that it goes about it so honestly. Ryan Reynolds, naturally, is as charming as ever, but for once, he’s actually given a role he can do something with — he’s not forced to resort to sarcastic wisecracks or camera mugging to make a film tolerable. And the three love interests — Weisz, Banks, and Fisher — are all so goddamn likable that you’d almost be happy to see him end up with any of the three, though it does become apparent that just one is right for him. Ultimately, I fell for Definitely, Maybe because, as best a movie of this ilk can, it dealt fairly with the complexities of relationships and love, and did so without cheap jokes, pratfalls, or a multitude of forced contrivances. It is, in a word, relentlessly sweet. And sure: There are a few mawkishly sentimental lines that may make some of you cringe, but that’s the nature of romance, isn’t it? When you’re in love, somehow it’s the cheesy lines that are always the most heartfelt.
Happy Valentine’s Day, folks.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Definitely, Maybe / Dustin Rowles
Film | February 14, 2008 | Comments ()