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Romance? Definitely. Success? Maybe.

AT THE MOVIES : REVIEW

February 14, 2008|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

It's not an accident, obviously, that "Definitely, Maybe" is opening on today of all days. This is a film bound and determined to do whatever it takes to be your Valentine. If it had trusted itself more, it might even have succeeded.

For this slick romantic comedy has several things going for it, including an interesting premise and an attractive cast that includes Ryan Reynolds, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks and Rachel Weisz. Getting all its elements to cohere, however, is too often just beyond its grasp.

As written and directed by Adam Brooks, "Definitely, Maybe" introduces us to advertising man Will Hayes (Reynolds), an about-to-be-divorced New Yorker who considers his 10-year-old daughter Maya ("Little Miss Sunshine's" always effective Abigail Breslin) to be the love of his life.

Maya, for reasons we'll get to later, is suddenly determined to find out how her parents first met. She also wants to know if there were any other women he was romantically involved with. The answer to that turns out to be an emphatic yes.

Reluctant to be too specific, Will agrees to tell all but insists on disguising names and identities, leaving it to Maya to guess who her mom turned out to be. "A love story mystery," is how the youngster describes it, and that's the way things unfold in the film's extended flashbacks.

This serviceable premise is improved on by adroit casting, starting with Ryan Reynolds as Will, met as a young man with political aspirations (yes, he wants to be president) who moves from Madison, Wis., to New York in 1992 to spend a few months working on Bill Clinton's presidential campaign.

Though he's better known for being one of People magazine's sexiest men than for any of his feature work, Reynolds has an appealing romantic comedy presence that wears quite well. It's easy to see why the trio of women in his life are attracted to him, and it doesn't feel off-putting for him to have fallen for all of them as well.

The actresses playing Will's women are also well cast, starting with wholesome-looking Elizabeth Banks as college sweetheart Emily, who fears that if Will goes to New York he will never return.

It's Emily who provides the link to Summer (Rachel Weisz), an old friend of hers she insists, in one of the film's endless contrivances, he look up in Manhattan. The vivacious Summer turns out to be an aspiring journalist having an affair with her thesis advisor, an acerbic alcoholic writer played by Kevin Kline.

The third woman in Will's life is April (Isla Fisher), a free spirit who listens to Nirvana, rereads "Jane Eyre" every year and enlivens her just-for-the-money job of working a copy machine for the Clinton campaign by saying things like "Don't make me staple your head." It plays better than it reads.

With a cast this engaging, "Definitely, Maybe" should be home free, but it isn't. As noted, it is more contrived than it ought to be and it also doesn't completely trust its warm moments. The film instead insists that its characters fall back on glib one-liners and slick situations that are not the way to anyone's heart.

So while there could be any number of reasons for young Maya to be curious about her parents' past, the film posits that it's a school sex education class that sets her off. That provides an excuse for Maya to repeatedly screech "penis, vagina, penis, vagina" as if they were the funniest words in the English language. They're not.

Also, Will's first job as a Clinton campaign gofer gives the film the opportunity, which it mysteriously takes, to rehash in detail several of the Clinton scandals, including Gennifer Flowers and Monica "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" Lewinsky. Why "Definitely, Maybe" chose to go that route in a year when Hillary was mounting her own presidential campaign is anyone's guess, but this is one film that won't be showing on the Clinton campaign plane any time soon.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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"Definitely, Maybe." Rated PG-13 for sexual content including some frank dialogue, language and smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. In general release.

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