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Scintillating romantic comedy is the holy grail that everyone in Hollywood dreams of capturing. Producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner have achieved some success reinvigorating classic formulas in their English comedies including “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill.”
But in crossing the pond for their latest effort, “Definitely, Maybe,” they run into some problems. Writer-director Adam Brooks (“Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason”) doesn’t have the knack for the genre demonstrated by the masters. Opening on Valentine’s Day, the film hopes to tap the date crowd, but it falls somewhere between a mass audience crowd-pleaser and a literate class act. Business will be middling but not spectacular.
Yet the film is far from a complete washout, and this is chiefly a tribute to its immensely attractive and appealing cast. Ryan Reynolds proves to have the stuff of a true leading man. He plays disgruntled ad man Will Hayes, who receives divorce papers in the movie’s opening scene. He goes to pick up his daughter Maya (“Little Miss Sunshine’s” Abigail Breslin) at school, where she has just attended her first sex education class and has a million questions for her befuddled dad.
Maya’s discovery of sex prompts her to ask Will how he met and fell and love with her mother. Instead of giving her a straightforward answer, Will recounts his romantic involvement with three women: college sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks), flaky co-worker April (Isla Fisher) and aspiring journalist Summer (Rachel Weisz). He frames his history as something of a mystery that Maya will have to solve: Which of the three women became his wife, and which of the three is his true soulmate?
The answer to the first question is not immediately apparent, but the answer to the second is clear because Fisher has top billing and the most screen time. It’s also clear because Fisher and Reynolds have the kind of sizzling chemistry that defines all the memorable movie couples. This film is a great showcase for both of them.
Will is an unusual romantic hero in that he spends most of the movie being dumped instead of conquering women. Considering that Reynolds has the looks to be a superstar, it’s a shrewd decision for him to play against that and come across as awkward and even dorky in his pursuit of women. His lack of confidence in his sexual prowess makes him even more endearing.
Fisher, best known for her role in “Wedding Crashers,” is absolutely irresistible. She, too, seems frazzled and rumpled rather than glamorous. April is the kind of no-nonsense, down-to-earth woman who always has been the mainstay of romantic comedy. Fisher actually seems to be channeling Jean Arthur or Claudette Colbert.
Weisz and Banks are ravishing enough to make the contest among the three women viable, though Banks’ role is underdeveloped, and even Weisz could use some meatier scenes. (A bland montage that shows Summer and Will falling in love doesn’t do the trick.)
Kevin Kline has a sharp cameo as the drunk writer who is Summer’s mentor and lover. But a lot of the other supporting players don’t really have enough to do. Even Breslin is reduced to little more than a sounding-board until the very last scenes, when she finally gets to play a more active role in Will’s search for fulfillment.
The film begins in 1992, when Will goes to work for Bill Clinton’s campaign for president, and an entertaining subplot concerns Will’s disillusionment with Clinton during the course of the ’90s. But the evocation of the era is fairly lackluster. Cinematographer Florian Ballhaus does capture the allure of Manhattan, though the editing by Peter Teschner lets the picture drag on too long.
The bigger problem is that the romantic banter between Will and his three paramours strains for sparkling wit and only occasionally achieves it. In addition, the script cries out for the kind of clever plotting that distinguished such movies as “It Happened One Night” and “Adam’s Rib.” Is it impossible for today’s writers to match the urbanity of Samson Raphaelson or Donald Ogden Stewart or Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin?
Such performers as Reynolds and Fisher might rank with Gable and Lombard or Tracy and Hepburn, but we’ll never know until they get the crack scripts that helped to turn an earlier generation of actors into legends.
Working Title, StudioCanal
Screenwriter-director: Adam Brooks
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Executive producers: Liza Chasin, Bobby Cohen
Co-executive producer: Kerry Orent
Director of photography: Florian Ballhaus
Production designer: Stephanie Carroll
Music: Clint Mansell
Costume designer: Gary Jones
Editor: Peter Teschner
Will Hayes: Ryan Reynolds
April: Isla Fisher
Maya Hayes: Abigail Breslin
Russell McCormack: Derek Luke
Emily: Elizabeth Banks
Summer Hartley: Rachel Weisz
Hampton Roth: Kevin Kline
Gareth: Adam Ferrara
Arthur Robredo: Nestor Serrano
Running time — 110 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
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