Witty, tender, definitely cute

A romantic comedy with brains as well as heart, Definitely, Maybe is that rare studio release that feels like it was written by a human being, not by committee.

It's also that rare studio release that gets away with a little kid - the 10-year-old daughter of the lead guy - delivering the line, "Dad, I can't believe you smoked, you drank, and you were such a slut!" after he recounts his premarital amours to this curious child.

The human being behind Definitely, Maybe is Adam Brooks, whose previous scripts (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Wimbledon, French Kiss) showed a bent for chick-flick insouciance, and who here takes on the added task of director. What's especially good about Brooks' movie - which stars Ryan Reynolds as Will Hayes, a dad about to sign divorce papers, telling his girl Maya (Abigail Breslin) the "mystery love story" behind how he met her mom - is the emotional depth and intelligence on hand.

Without resorting to the libidinous high jinks of a Judd Apatow pic, Brooks gets humor and tenderness out of his tale of the right-girl-at-the-wrong-time and the wrong-girl-at-the-right-time. And, somehow, amazingly, Brooks manages to work in the entire Bill Clinton presidency, too, replete with the big-hair moments supplied by Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky.

Told in voice-over and flashback, Definitely, Maybe begins, "Once upon a time, before e-mail and cell phones and TV reality shows" - that is, in the early 1990s. Will is an idealistic college grad who moves to Manhattan to work on the Clinton campaign, leaving girlfriend Emily (Elizabeth Banks) back in Wisconsin. Through Will's job, which requires fetching coffee and restocking toilet paper, he meets the wisecracking, artsy April (Isla Fisher). Through Emily, he meets her old college roommate, Summer (Rachel Weisz), a brainy writer living in New York and bedding her poli-sci prof (a cameo-ing Kevin Kline).

So, Will begins his bedtime story - changing the names of the women so Maya must guess which one will turn out to be her mother. There are seductions, and thwarted love, and Emily eventually moves to New York, too. Will goes from campaign gofer to disillusioned Clinton supporter to head of a political consultancy firm (with friend and partner played by Derek Luke) - and finally to advertising exec.

For a while, it looks as though Summer might be Maya's mom, and then for a time, the April scenario plays more promisingly. And then there's Emily. The audience is left to puzzle things out along with Maya.

Reynolds, droll and deadpan, carries the lead with ease, and Fisher is terrific as the snappy cynic with a deep soul. Weisz is sexy, charming and dangerous. And yes, Breslin, the little miss of Little Miss Sunshine, is alarmingly cute - but she backs the cuteness up with serious acting instincts.

Definitely, Maybe gets too coy in spots, and Brooks is a sharper writer at this point in his career than he is a director. But for a film with a half-dozen fully-formed characters that spans 15 years and works in a swell detail about a 1943 edition of Jane Eyre - well, it definitely works. No maybes about it.


Definitely, Maybe *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Adam Brooks. With Ryan Reynolds, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Elizabeth Banks, Derek Luke and Rachel Weisz. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, sex, adult themes).

Playing at: area theaters.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.