RIORI Vol 3, Installment 74: Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” (2008)


 


The Players…

Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Elizabeth Banks, Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz and Kevin Kline, with Derek Luke, Adam Ferrara and Bill Clinton (by proxy).


The Story…

Young Maya is seriously curious about how her parents—currently hurtling into divorce—met. Naturally, she sweats her dad, Will, for the straight dope.

With a sigh and a need to get some sleep, Will recounts his romantic past (in a PG kinda way) with three different but still special women, Emily, April and Summer. All seemed to have a lasting impression on Maya’s beleaguered father, leaving her to a game of connect-the-dots as to guess which one is really Mom.

Some little birdy tells Maya that Match.com had precious little to do with her existence.


The Rant…

This may come as no surprise, but I’ve never been much for rom-coms. In fact, I should’ve dropped that decree back when establishing the Standard.

Nope. Never much cared for ham-fisted jokes about dealing with the opposite sex. Ditto the proto-softcore sexual dalliances of well-shorn, upwardly mobile, late-20s white people. The cute and winking social commentary. Jennifer Aniston. The whole wad.

But I won’t deny that I’ve found a few entertaining. Maybe even approaching good (shiver). Still ain’t made of stone here, and despite my typical frothing foment here, there’s always room for exceptions, be it at a vegan buffet or the occasional Taylor Swift single (I like “Shake It Off,” okay? Ten billion 17-year old mallrats can’t all be wrong).

Of course there are a lot of classic rom-coms out there. Often high water marks that every Kate Hudson vehicle aspire to be and of course fall flat because Goldie’s kid can’t act. Classics like the lovely (but bowdlerized Capote adaptation) Breakfast At Tiffany’s starring the winsome Audrey Hepburn and the dreamy George “Hannibal” Peppard. Reluctant lovers that find each other alone in the crowd that is early-60s NYC. There was the cynical Jerry Maguire featuring both bromance and wooing cutie-pie Renee Zellweger. Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie; unconventional, yes, but Hoffman was trying to get into Lange’s panties (that counts I say). Hepburn and Grant stepping on the tiger’s tail in Bringing Up Baby. And of course Annie Hall, the only rom-com to ever win Best Pic, although it didn’t have to. Woody Allen would agree.

Beyond my short list, there are indeed nice, non-drippy romantic comedies around. Few and far between, to be sure, since a great scorched earth swath of these beasties have been following a tried-and-true formula (read: one that sells the tix to gullible Americans) toward the end of time. Kinda like the Book Of Revelation, seeing St John was such a fan of pixie dream girls.

The aforementioned formula is as such, with or without Kate Hudson and especially with Ms Aniston. I base it on the Patton Oswalt bit about what all rom-coms are all about: our characters trying to f*ck. That’s the endgame, right? Crisis averted. Tab A, slot B, Holy mana chunky peanut butter. Sad but true, even though not many money shots get beyond a transaction with the teller. Need I remind you of the ticket taker and all right, got it.

But that’s true, even if actually see anything or not! Sure, we can get kisses and hugs at Chuck E Cheese any day of the month, but it’s the burnt pizza smell we want to a hang over us like a satisfying romantic caper should. Plots with fleshed-out, ribald characters. Basic—but not sodden—plots with room to breathe, letting in some quick “Hey there” now and again. An actual interest, if not concern, that our lovers find their way towards lasting commitment. The occasional side-boob shot. Whatever works in favor of the story.

I think a lot of rom-coms fall dead in their tracks not so much as to derivative…everything, but to trying to pander to our wizened expectations. Okay, you and I aren’t jaded like that. Okay, I mean you aren’t jaded like that. I mean…

*sigh*

*blogger drinks milk straight from the jug, passes it around*

Our jaded exceptions. Why do we watch such pap? Mostly like it might have to do with the wishes of our significant others, always with that box o’ Kleenex and pint of Haagen-Dasz at the ready (read: your girlfriend, regardless of gender). Maybe we just want a dumb chuckle attached to pretty people behaving pretty stupidly around the potential object(s) of their potential affection. Hell, maybe we just want to look at said pretty people. Unsure on all fronts here, but what can’t be denied is that no matter how hardened to reality we claim to be we all need a li’l giggle-and-snuggle now and again. Like I said: not made of stone. Neither are you. Admit it, at the time “you complete me” made you warm and the eyes watered, if only for a flash.

Let’s face it, folks, despite how diehard cynical we are, watching a decent rom-com takes our edge of for a short time so we can ransack the peasant village with a clear conscious tomorrow. We enjoy love, hope to find it someday, and may unfortunately face the wreck and ruin when your crush spurns you or you find the bed empty next morning. I guess we watch such drivel because, hey, romance is hard. We want easy answers. Matters resolved in 90 minutes. Ain’t that true of all movies? Patience pays, too. I took half of forever for Travis to whack Sport, and Taxi Driver—though well made—was a sh*t-tastic romantic comedy. I blame Cybil Shepard.

Anyway, I think the reason that most rom-coms are maligned is that they fail to transcend the tropes. We know what to expect. We still pray for a successful tab A slot B…again. We get clever and winking instead of earnest and “Hey there.” Yeah, they make good cheddar, maybe based on the Oswalt theory on the Aniston x-factor. Can’t say for sure, but if we’re talking about the bottom line, regardless of genre, the fluffy flick must have something to rise above the cheeze.

There’s often a pillowful of fluff associated with rom-coms. It’s almost the stock in trade. What made the above goodies, well, above is a good plot, sharp acting and a keen directorial eye, like with all good movies. Takes a sharp director and scenarist to throw the correct spanner in the sticky, sentimental works and maybe, maybe a smart rom-com will emerge. Maybe it happened here with Definitely, Maybe.

But maybe not. The thing does star Ryan “Deadpool” Reynolds here…


Will Hayes (Reynolds) is a modestly successful ad exec. Not his dream job, but it pays the bills. Bills like alimony and child support.

Poor Will is going through a divorce, to his college sweetheart “Emily” (Banks) no less, and is learning how to make the most of his time (read: visitations) with his young daughter Maya (Breslin). Like most doomed divorcees he asks himself how did it end up like this? Not just his dissolving marriage and the ensuing limited Daddy time, but how the hell did he lose some integrity and make his way in the cold, hard world schilling cereal punch-up to afford his apartment? And the impending alimony? And the impending child forget that.

One day Will scoops Maya up from school on his designated day. The school is awash in chaos. Parents screaming, kids howling. Is it a fire? Lone gunman? Cafeteria ran out of chicken fingers (again)? Nope. Sex ed. In an elementary school? Will asks no one, “Aren’t they a little young?”

Maya finds her Dad amidst the crowd. “We need to talk,” comes her plaintive demand. Yep, too young.

With her stern quip, Maya sweats Will as to how Mom and him came around to make the good sense to have her. Select day or no, Maya refuses to bunk down that night unless Dad explains who Mom was. She means really was. How did they meet? When did they fall in love? Was she really the one? It ain’t the most conventional bedtime story, but Will acquiesces and fields Maya’s interrogation, if only to shut her up.

Well, kid, there was your mom. Then there was your mother


Like I said, in order for your usual, drippy rom-com to come to life there has to be a modest degree of smarts attached to the story. I say that and also a blurred focus on the whole Kate Hudson angle. Namely, pay no mind to the couple canoodling behind the curtain.

What’s funny (and I don’t mean ha-ha) about Maybe is that said canoodling is well wrapped in the curtain. Almost non-existant. Wait, that’s not quite accurate. The curtain action is virtually an afterthought. While watching Maybe I formed the impression that regardless of all the textures and trappings it wasn’t trying to be a rom-com. The whole deal with Dad recounting possible mom against another possible mom to Maya was more of a coming-of-age tale rather than the Oswalt context.

Maybe was dry. Both in humor and delivery. A good thing, couched against my strident dictum regarding what often goes wrong with the usual rom-com. Namely, cotton candy and no cone to hold. And without my trademark snark, a lot of things can and have gone wrong with this maligned sub-genre. I won’t mention Aniston again, at least in this paragraph. This one.

Maybe was indeed dry. Like sober. No-nonsense, or at least very little. Sure, there was a share of being fluffy, but at the end of the day Maybe had some low-key dire consequences, namely regarding Breslin’s prying open Reynold’s shell (and she is so precocious in the best way possible. Think Olive). That invites the whole raison d’être with Maybe: it pries. It’s intrusive. It’s what drives the plot. It’s what my kid might call “cringy.” I didn’t laugh much over Maybe. I did cringe a bit, but for the better. Blame the arid atmosphere almost revolting against the typical star-crossed love interest factor. And let’s face facts, Romeo and what’s-her-tits has become hackneyed. Claiming that, one could blame the Bard for Aniston’s movie career (and no, I will not stop beating on her like a rusty cymbal).

The whole air of Maybe was drenched in shame and schadenfreude. Almost solely laid at the feet of Reynolds. Kinda odd saying that considering Reynolds here is uncharacteristically likable. I know, I’m just as surprised as you. His signature smarm is at bay, and plays the innocent here for a change (maybe the first time). Most flicks like Maybe come at you from a female angle. Not here, yet the movie shrewdly takes cues from above (eg: the diary scene). Will is not the most proactive “ladies man” you’d see in your standard whatsit. For that very fact, Maybe comes across more like that aforementioned “coming of age” story rather than a polite tale of chasing tail. It’s in reverse, besides the flashback sequences. It might be a film about finding oneself, except that our protag works the exploration angle reflected off of three females. Four if you count Breslin. I do. It was different.

Which may be why I didn’t roll my eyes (much) watching it. Wasn’t as much a chore like I anticipated (oh, how one suffers for their art). Like all rom-coms, Maybe is totally character driven with wobbly undercurrents driving the principals. What makes Maybe unique is a matter of arrested development. Past Will is only a fleeting distant from Present Will. All the naivete of youth never got lost with “maturity” regarding our chump. As an “adult” Will is still chewing over what his chosen path has led to, and with the wayback machine in full force thanks to Maya’s prodding, he’s made to examine his unexamined life so far. “Exorcise” is probably a better term.

And Will’s past demons—I mean women—do a pretty good job of defining where Will went. Their characters ain’t nothing to write home (or anywhere) about. Banks, Fisher and Weisz fall into the traditional female rom-com archetypes. Banks was the college sweetheart, left behind. Fisher was the wild one, perched in the cosmo mess that Will was virginal to. Weisz the free spirit, all artsy-fartsy possessing an allure far from Minnesota. All temptresses to Will. What made these stereotypes worked—barely—was how Will responded to their potential offerings. Most male rom-com leads have a definite quarry, whom are not only the requisite object of their affection but the Maguffin that makes the plot extant, be it Hudson or Keaton. Not here with Maybe. There is a real uncertainty (like with Maya’s questioning) as to who Will eventually hooked up—and stayed—with. Uncertainty since Will is still the wide-eyed, post-grad Clinton booster now schilling kids’ cereal. Don’t let the clothes fool you. Maybe is a rather earthy rom-com. Like Reynolds as modest, maybe a first.

I could go into the ups and downs of our female cast, but I won’t. For two reasons. One, theirs were where the sickly sweet smell of all rom-coms dwell. Their characters, gamely played mind you, were simply gamely played. Two, despite their relatively unique personalities, this was Will’s tale all the way. The ladies were both merely bookends as well as reflections of Will’s growth as an individual. How you like them apples? An existential rom-com, populated with three weird sisters, all named Inez.

Sorry. Philosophy minor. Moving on.

And moving on is all about Will. The guy apparently can’t (or won’t) get his emotional sh*t together. Small wonder due to the impending divorce. Smaller wonder why Maya’s all over her history like Rosie O’Donnell on a Big Mac. This push-and-pull between emotional security and emotional need drives Maybe, and rather than the coven’s influences crowding the scene, it’s Will’s shrugging that moves our tale along. From Ryan Reynolds! Far cry from Green Lantern, eh? And I still liked that trifle. Sue me.

All right. It’s that time. Let’s talk tech. We can only wring our fists so long over the Patton theory. Cute chicks and their wicked plans only go so far (which can lead out to Toledo regardless of your zip code). I gotta give props to the notable props employed here, side-boob shots or no (less on the no part, one hopes).

Of course there were a few tips and tricks I nabbed that made the film a little smarter that your average Aniston—

*squished beer cans go clang*

Sorry. That hurt. You’re welcome. Where’s the potato chips?

I saw some keen camera work here. Namely, precious few close-ups. Maybe is an open film, probably reflecting the “room for interpretation” theme of the story. That and its opposite, wide frames and open space, doubtless a reflection of Will’s chosen, uncertain and virtually never-ending stroll through life, love and leaving. I’ve often felt in my travels that technique—such as it may be—in most rom-coms feature a lot of face time dappled with dewey eyes and wide open expanses. Again, not here with Maybe. Even the most open shots are tight, almost claustrophobic. This is a character study, right? Will is always under the lens; why not make him solid front and center? It’s almost relentless, which also adds to the sense that Maybe ain’t yer average romantic comedy. I began to suspect that over the relentless 2 hours. Might not’ve been a bad thing. Trying to absorb that.

Also, there’s a lot of passive 90’s pop culture noted in Maybe. Might’ve been nostalgia speaking to me; I remember all the Clinton/grunge/nascent World Wide Web stirrings back then stabbing my squishy adolescent skull. Like a sharp orchestra with well-waxed bows, such tones hit the ears to the properly receptive. I know this was all a setup to have a destination for Maya’s interrogating Daddy Will about when and where, but we didn’t get swamped with the likes of touchstones MTV Unplugged, Pepsi Crystal and/or affordable Discmans. Instead we passed through Will’s doors, snapped at but never snagging our coats. There’s a lot to say for subtlety so beneath that one barely remembers to zip up before bounding reluctantly out into the rain. Did I leave something behind? Maybe. Must’ve been Maya’s questions. Bless her.

There was a lot of purposeful cheekiness here, too. Granted not really a technical aspect of a movie, but for this kind of movie—again, this genre—sour cutesy can work wonders, especially here. A lot of knowing, narrow winking is the expected death knell of any credibility a rom-com tries to attain, which ain’t much (I dislike the genre, all right? Quit reading then). Maybe‘s cheekiness is a disguise for being self-effacing. There is an uncertainty about the “right woman” threading through the film. A lot of “okay, now what?” It’s the “hey there” factor here. Play cute, implode later. Shakespeare played that card a lot, and it worked so well “Taming Of The Shrew” is still de riguer in every high school English class. Trust me, I know. I used to be a respectable member of society and not reeking of salami, beer and beer. Them errant cans be my underlings now. Tremble before me.

*belch*

Wrapping this whole gob up, I’m still not a rom-com fan. As a whole—let’s call it—they’re usually too damned schmaltzy. Maybe managed to avoid this. Don’t misunderstand me: this stuff is decidedly not my thing. But I kinda liked it. Kinda. Maybe still had the hallmarks federally mandated to address. Pretty white people in amour (okay, to be fair we also had a pretty black guy, but he was unattached). Struggles regarding communication and self-doubt. Running a little too long (not feeling, running. We were pushing 2 hours here). The whole deal. However Maybe quietly strained against the boilerplate. A fan of the genre, I still ain’t, seeing for a clever director/scenarist trying hard to steer clear of said genre’s trappings and generate a flick I’ll watch, three stars and a bouquet.

Even though I never plan to watch Deadpool woo Wyldstyle ever again. I’m a guy.

Place your bets?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it. I’m just as surprised as you might, might be. Blame or thank Maybe‘s not obvious unconventional execution. I blame Ryan Reynolds as not smelling of Van Wilder. I should thank just being a guy here with some…er, very little patience. That and I think Isla Fisher’s hot. As well as Breslin. Today! Breslin today! Jeez.


Stray Observations…

  • “And then what happened?”
  • Early 90s = Arrested Development. ‘Nuff said.
  • “Probably…not.”
  • I love the opening montage (the Sly song goes a long way, too).
  • Is Rachel pretty? My vote’s not in yet.
  • “You should get on your horse.”
  • Ever play the game/see the movie Clue? Wanna wager Brooks did?
  • “I make a living.” Couldn’t resist either.
  • Strangest pop culture study of Bill Clinton I’ve ever seen.
  • “You.”

Next Installment…

It appears that Viggo Mortenson has A History Of Violence he was ignorant about. “Luckily” he found the best, worst refresher course. Coffee anyone?


 

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