In the saga of his love life that he weaves as a bedtime story for his preteen daughter, Maya (Abigail Breslin), in Definitely, Maybe, Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) sounds like a man from Hope as he recounts the good old days of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Back then, Will was an idealistic campaign worker straight out of college in Wisconsin; today he’s a Manhattan ad guy about to finalize his divorce from Maya’s mother. The Clinton name-check (along with a trip down memory lane to the testimony of former Clinton paramour Gennifer Flowers) gives this value-enhanced romantic semi-comedy a gentle zing of timeliness, especially as the wife who stood by her man 16 years ago is now the Clinton seeking the presidency herself. And the pointed reference to the curious case of the Clinton relationship announces that Definitely, Maybe is absolutely, probably more comfortable with human romantic complication than the usual stuff released on Valentine’s Day.
If only Will the character weren’t such a generic, pizzazz-less Ken doll of a Gen-X adult male! If only Reynolds the actor didn’t vanish before our eyes even as he walks and talks! Will describes three uncommon women who have moved him from mild to warm over the years, disguising the names so his daughter can guess, in the end, which lady became her mommy. (That’s an odd form of father-daughter bonding, true, but the big-city girl has just had her first sex-ed class.) There’s Emily (Elizabeth Banks), the wholesome Midwesterner who feared that the bright lights of New York would change her beau; there’s Summer (Rachel Weisz), the glamorous belles-lettres adventurer, whose involvement with an older literary lion (Kevin Kline) didn’t diminish her appreciation for Will’s boyish good looks; and there’s April (Isla Fisher), the free spirit, who, although winsomely kooky enough to serve as a dream girl for Daily Show boys, is nevertheless receptive to Will’s white-bread-and-mayo appeal. No reason is adequately given why Will and his wife have chosen to split up and share custody, but I assume an inability to distinguish husband from hat rack is grounds for divorce.
And so Will advances the narrative, year by year, interrupted by Maya’s perceptive present-day questions and commentary, delivered with the kind of therapeutic Wise Child tolerance we have come to expect from the star of Little Miss Sunshine. The thing is, each lady under discussion would not only make a reasonablemommy but also a really attractive, realistic woman. No one’s a cartoon villain, and no one’s beyond reproach, either. Everyone speaks like a grown-up (er, including Maya). But in a bounty of candidates, keep your eye on Banks. In a performance of invigorating complexity (and typically sunny equanimity), her Emily is a breakthrough non-neurotic beauty, perfectly built for an election year unimaginable back when Gennifer Flowers was acting out a much older female role. B