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FLAGGING INTEREST: Clinton supporter Will (Ryan Reynolds) has eyes for April (Isla Fisher) in 'Definitely, Maybe.'

Speak, Memory

A tale about a father's romantic past leads to a nostalgia for the first Clinton era in 'Definitely, Maybe'

By Richard von Busack

MAYBE, definitely, some novelty and fiber lurk in the fluff of Definitely, Maybe. It's not too much to ask that a romantic comedy be about something. This Valentine's Day contender includes some timely material on politics: the business of taking the shine out of young people's eyes.

The most lovable child actor alive, Abigail Breslin of Little Miss Sunshine, raises the interest level, an interest cooled out by one of the most uninteresting leading men around, Ryan "Van Wilder" Reynolds. After finding out where babies come from in her sex-education class, 11-year-old Maya (Breslin) wants to learn how she was brought into the world.

Her Manhattan ad-executive father, Will Hayes (Reynolds), is in the midst of a painful divorce from Maya's mother. Trying to figure out how it all happened, he decides to retrace his romantic history, changing the names. It's a bedtime story for Maya, as she lolls in her Christmas-light-surrounded bed. Before her birth, her father was involved with three different women: blonde, brunette and redhead. Will Maya be able to deduce which love lasted?

Emily (the ever-patrician Elizabeth Banks) was the college crush Will loved and left behind in Madison, Wis., before moving to New York City in 1992 to work on the first Bill Clinton campaign. Emily asked Will to deliver a book to her old friend Summer (Rachel Weisz), who was going to Columbia. Summer's book turns out to be her diary. On the urgings of his New York roommate (Derek Luke), Will reads it and discovers a once-upon-a-time lesbian liaison between Summer and Emily.

Delivering the diary—clearly, it was read; strangely, Summer doesn't care—Will befriends the new girl. They share a kiss, even though she lives with her professor, Hampton Roth (Kevin Kline). Hampton is supposed to be a renowned political writer. Apparently, he got that status with the kind of aperçu we hear at his reading: "Syntax isn't what the Nevada brothels pay the IRS." (And then afterward, he coined the phrase, "Tipping isn't a city in China," told it to a barista and got free coffee for a year.)

While at work on the campaign, Will encounters the apolitical April (Isla Fisher, a speedier version of Amy Adams). Nineties alterna-girl that she is, April longs for the older-fashioned romance, as signposted by her particular quirk: a collection of different editions of Jane Eyre. Of the three women, April strikes up the most romantic interest, if just through contrast; Fisher's vivacity and unpredictability warm up the too-smooth male lead a little.

Director/writer Adam Brooks tries to create an aura of Billy Wilderish hopeful disappointment. The longtime romantic comedy scribe (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) salts his story with the sass of Maya shouting the new word she just learned: "Penis!" Definitely, Maybe is a little looser than most romantic comedies. Summer and Emily's sexual experimentation—and no, we don't get to watch a Weisz/Banks tryst—isn't brought up repeatedly, as if it were proof they couldn't settle down with a man. (Is it part of the story Will is telling his daughter, though? Seems a little age-inappropriate.)

They say that a movie star ought to be a person who wants something. It's easy to tell what Reynolds wants, just as it was easy to tell what Ralph Bellamy wanted back in the golden age of the romantic comedy. It's the same as always: security, stability, a mother for his children. As an actor, Reynolds is the go-to man when you want a character who shows mild rebellion before settling down and working until 65. The name says it all—even if Ryan Reynolds was born with that handle, it sounds like something a movie studio gave him.

While the mystery is settled, we watch the process that took Will from his youthful ambition to be president to his actual job: cooking up the slogans for products. Will's QV gets as much weight as his love life. He begins as an idealist drawn into the Clinton camp. Will expected his college experience to get him a speech-writing job. Instead he's assigned to be a coffee fetcher and a toilet-paper hauler.

Persevering, he becomes—fictionally—the sloganeer behind the phrase "The Man From Hope." Will misses the first storm warning from the Gennifer Flowers affair, although April always smelled promiscuity on Bill Clinton, right from the start. When the full-bore Clinton sex scandal breaks out, Will is crushed. Once again, recent history is rewritten; many were angrier at the political partisan Kenneth Starr than at Clinton, but this POV doesn't get a hearing in Definitely, Maybe. In Brooks' view, Monicagate is just what the commentators all swore it was: a disgrace to the nation.

All this may be just window-dressing for the Gen-X nostalgic who can remember back all the way to the mid-1990s. Brooks has titled this film after one of the best-known albums of 1994, and that's another signal. Affordable lofts, brick-size cell phones, "Come As You Are" by Nirvana and the huge name drops for American Eagle cigarettes are all part of the happy-days view of that time.

Maybe implicit in this romance is hope for a Clinton restoration. Strangely, this aftertaste seems more bracing than the romance itself; it's more bracing, certainly, than Reynolds' smiling steadfastness and Brooks inability to bring his story to an end.

Movie Times DEFINITELY, MAYBE (PG-13), directed and written by Adam Brooks, photographed by Florian Ballhaus and starring Ryan Reynolds, Elizabeth Banks and Rachel Weisz, opens Feb. 14.

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