You know me.
I like arty films.
When I feel really enthusiastic about a genre film, it’s usually for some arty reason.
So why is it that when it comes to romantic comedies, I want the most orthodox, contrived, flaky storyline that I can find? Because the only thing worse than a contrived romantic comedy is an uncontrived one. Or one, like Definitely, Maybe, that’s convinced it’s uncontrived.
Among film critics, this opinion probably makes me an outcast. Or at least the only Ralph Bellamy at a Cary Grant convention. But look at some of the plots of the great romantic comedies. Paleontologist and heiress chase leopard across Connecticut. Ex-cop husband and heiress wife solve murder cases. Editor and reporter, ex-spouses, try to stop execution. Princess and journalist cruise round town.
It’s a genre in which witty silliness has proven to last. So when in last week’s Fool’s Gold, Kate Hudson crack Matthew McConaughey over the head with a cane, I think of a different Kate snapping Grant’s golf club over her knee. Fool’s Gold isn’t Lubitsch by any stretch, but it’s at least a pale imitation of the same honored tradition.
So the realistic take of Definitely, Maybe is, to me, a disappointment. Oh sure, if you like your romantic comedies to be intelligent, well-written, well-acted, a little original, with a dose of wisdom, just go. Fine with me. This is your thing. But I wish some modern auteur would write a great, classical screwball comedy.
It’s very difficult to do what Definitely, Maybe tries to do, tell a love story spanning 15 years and three girlfriends in the life of New York advertising executive (and former political hotshot) on the brink of divorce (Ryan Reynolds). We watch him ping-pong from college sweetheart (Elizabeth Banks) to free-spirited journalist (Rachel Weisz) to artsy redhead (Isla Fisher). The film invites us to guess which one he marries. After a while, this descends into a marathon of “who cares?” Better that they have some outlandish leopard chase in which to sublimate their romantic energies.
There’s a fourth female crucial to the film’s plot - Abigail Breslin’s 10-year-old daughter. A fouled-up school presentation on the birds and bees leads her to ask to hear the story of mom meeting pop. Through flashbacks, her father tells her the “complicated” story. This is the most interesting relationship in the film, and certainly the one with the most wit and insight. But the structure keeps it hidden for much of the time.
My misgivings do not mean that I do not recognize the good work of others. You’ll read many sentences that start “I’ve always liked Ryan Reynolds.” Count me in. Rachel Weisz is a bright spot. And how are we going to decide between Breslin and Dakota Fanning as America’s sweetheart? I suggest a duel.