There’s considerable spark amid the contrivance in “Definitely, Maybe,” a comedy about a divorcing dad who takes his precocious daughter on a mystery tour through his romantic past. But the movie is foremost a phony valentine, thanks to the standard rom-com recipe and the film’s own implausibility palette.
Bland writer-director Adam Brooks directs bland actor Ryan Reynolds in the role of Will, a 30-something Manhattan ad exec who receives his divorce papers in the opening sequence. Will’s 10-year-old daughter, Maya (Abigail Breslin), following a sex-ed class that’s stirred her curiosity, insists that Will tell her about his love life with her mother and other women he’s known.
Will presents the details in the form of a semi-sanitized bedtime story in which he changes the women’s names so that it plays like a mystery. Which woman will become Maya’s mom?
Transported back to 1992, we meet the idealistic young Will, who relocates from Wisconsin to New York to volunteer for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Over the years, as his career path is shaped by Clinton’s ups and downs, Will bounces among three women: college sweetheart “Emily” (Elizabeth Banks), spirited underachiever “April” (Isla Fisher), and driven journalist “Summer” (Rachel Weisz). One of them he will marry. One he will unite with, romantic-comedy style, in the present day.
When he lets his characters simply share a wavelength and generate electricity, Brooks, whose directorial record includes “The Invisible Circus” and whose uneven screenplay credits include “French Kiss” and “Practical Magic,” shows hints of Woody Allen in his Manhattan days, or Eric Rohmer in terms of depicting bright young women making romantic choices.
The presence of Fisher and Weisz, who are appealingly quirky and serene, respectively, provides dynamism and magnetism and offsets Reynolds’ mildness.
But the manufactured story dims things significantly.
The father-daughter bedtime scenes suffer from gimmickry and dialogue that no father and child in the human continuum would ever share. The precocious-movie-kid quality that directors keep drawing from Breslin has lost its cuteness. A subplot involving a lost copy of “Jane Eyre” and the sealed-with-a-kiss climax are mush. With such falseness in play, you can’t feel seriously invested in the pairings that occur.
The supporting cast includes Kevin Kline, who’s entertaining as Summer’s cantankerous thesis adviser and pre-Will boyfriend, and Derek Luke, portraying Will’s Clinton-era pal. The latter hopes to become the nation’s first black president, in an accessible bit of relevancy.
Definitely, Maybe (two stars)
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz, Abigail Breslin
Written and directed by Adam Brooks
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes