In the romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe, advertising executive and newly divorced dad Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) is introduced bopping merrily down the sidewalk. He's listening to Sly & the Family Stone's "Everyday People," and grooving on the funky human tapestry of Manhattan.
But Hayes' iPod reverie bursts when he picks up his 11-year-old daughter, Maya (Abigail Breslin), from school. In a plot point that will strike most parents as unimaginable for our overly cautious age, the school has given its preteens a crash course in sex ed without informing their folks. It's like the fall of Saigon as the school spins into a melee of agitated children and outraged parents. Now it's up to Hayes to explain where babies come from by detailing his past love life to Maya.
Tucked into her princessy bed, Maya settles in for a night-night story. What she gets is a soapy, navel-gazing epic as daddy recounts his many love affairs with a cast of beauties, among them Maya's mother. This being Manhattan, even the kids are cynical about romance. "I know love isn't a fairy tale," Maya scoffs as daddy begins a stroll down memory lane.
Since the ending of Hayes' bedtime story is ultimately his divorce from Maya's mother, Definitely, Maybe plays with our desire to be soothed by fairy tales about love and romance. It acknowledges the limitations of "Happily Ever After" even as it buckles in the end underneath that rom-com cliché.
Director and screenwriter Adam Brooks' postmodern romance is written with a Generation X sensibility; it's a love story with divorce, heartbreak and single-parenting anxieties factored in. In the flashback, Hayes returns to his post-graduation job in 1992 as a gopher at the New York City campaign headquarters for a fresh-faced politician from Arkansas named Bill Clinton. Hayes begins by schlepping toilet paper and pulling stapler duty. But he's soon wooing deep-pocket donors and rising through the ranks.
Despite its Clinton-centric story line, Definitely, Maybe seems less interested in blue-state ideology than in using politics as a convenient marker of time's passage. As Clinton rises through the ranks, so does Hayes, as he becomes embroiled with a bevy of lookers. There's his college sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks), who's afraid big-city life will change him. (One look at the puppylike Reynolds and that possibility seems remote.) There's the riot grrrl April (Isla Fisher) who turns Hayes on to a groovy Seattle band called Nirvana. And there's the aspiring journalist with the Ian Fleming name, Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz), who's bedding her thesis adviser (Kevin Kline in a throwaway role).
Perhaps designed to embody Brooks' spectrum of femininity – radical to old-fashioned – the female characters feel as one-dimensional as the colorless lead, Hayes. Especially irksome is April; though meant to be an attitudinal grunge type, her heavy makeup and cute outfits are more sorority girl than slacker. That fuzziness with character points to a larger problem with Definitely, Maybe. Struggling unsuccessfully to escape its banal romantic-comedy trappings, the movie strives for – but never delivers – a generational statement about romantic and political disappointment set against the highs and lows of the Clinton era.
As the wishy-washy title telegraphs, Definitely, Maybe is steeped in Gen X ambivalence. Hayes finds his faith in both Clinton and love tested. But the film's take on both the generation and the time frame that nourished it is vague and incomplete. Though Brooks references some of the signposts of the time – grunge music, cell phones, the Internet – his feel for the substance of the mid-1990s is less precise.
The casting of Reynolds, whose actorly trick bag runs from "eyes open" to "eyes opener," possibly indicating surprise or distress, doesn't help. In another era, Will Hayes might have been played by the unconventional Gen X man/child John Cusack. With Cusack, who gave films such as Say Anything... and High Fidelity their generational attitude, Definitely, Maybe might have better hit its angsty mark.
Brooks, who penned screenplays for Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and French Kiss, clearly knows his way around the chick-flick canon. With its inoffensively cute and mildly distressed lead, Definitely, Maybe is essentially a chick flick for dudes. This time it's the guy suffering heartbreak and pining, along with his little daughter, for Miss Right.
As played by the lackluster Reynolds, Will Hayes is the anti-Rambo; he's sensitive to the point of impotence. Neither extreme of Hollywood masculinity holds much appeal, though. There's something equally distasteful in the chest-pounding Rambo with testosterone coursing through his veins and the sad-sack single dad telling his daughter bedtime stories about his romantic disappointments.