In "Definitely, Maybe," Maya (a terrific Abigail Breslin) is 11 going on Ivy League and has questions; lots of 'em.
Alas, the questions are about sex, reproduction, relationships, women, love, loss and other minor topics of childhood curiosity. The source for answers: her beleaguered yet nonetheless forthcoming father, played by a delightfully down-to-earth Ryan Reynolds.
Handsome, successful, doting dad Will Hayes would rather not be explaining the last 15 years of his love life to the only steady girl in his life; yet it is to the actor's credit that he never once seems insincere, impatient or flummoxed.
With noble boyhood intentions of growing up to become president, Will has settled for advertising executive, and appears restless and a bit bored. Trying to explain "young and stupid" to someone still in possession of "that thing called hope" (Yup, Will worked for the Bill Clinton campaign!) seems almost an insurmountable obstacle. Undeterred, he cheerfully plods on.
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Because Maya will not relent until she hears about all his past conquests (and can guess who her real mother is), Will starts to fill in the details of each relationship through a series of achingly real, extremely poignant flashbacks.
First up: April. Not as scattered nor naughty as she appears in "Wedding Crashers" Isla Fisher is bewitching as the unburdened, anti-establishment, free-spirited cynic who, of course, deepens with time and sees right through Will, as she challenges, "I just wonder if you want people to like you a little bit too much."
As Summer Hartley. Rachel Weisz ("The Constant Gardener") is the thinking man's girlfriend and brings some substance to an otherwise flitty yarn.
The dazzling, dashing and ever fashionable Elizabeth Banks plays Emily -- apparently here only to break someone's heart and keep smiling throughout. Yet, she too evolves, becoming neat, efficient, at least outwardly content and ever in control.
Hopeful without feeling saccharine, this amusing oral history offers very little false optimism for any relationship -- be it political, romantic or parental.
The main uncredited character throughout Will's adventures is Manhattan. From the colorful neighborhoods, to the bridges -- both symbolic (beckoning to new worlds) and literal -- to the changes in lifestyle each character experiences over the 15-year span of the story, a healed city helps show that even those who appear hopelessly flawed can indeed change, and often do so in unexpected ways.
Beyond New York City and the film's politically liberal bent, the movie's other twist is a true rarity: It's been quite a long time that a mainstream movie, never mind a romance, repeatedly showed the leads smoking without vilifying them or outright condemning them.
As he did with "Bridget Jones, The Edge of Reason," writer/director Adam Brooks, for the most part, avoids the cliché and the distractions of couples' posturing, instead emphasizing there truly are no easy answers, even for one's preteen daughter. Solutions, if they come at all, arrive after years of effort and a serendipitous touch of luck, timing and persistence.
Maybe. Or, as Will tries to assure Maya, "It's complicated." Definitely.
Bittersweet without being cloying, each intimate moment is deeply felt and superbly played. Sure, love means never having to ....
But here, even the apologies are real. And for many of us, that's enough.