"Definitely, Maybe" is the kind of Hollywood romantic comedy the studios usually louse up, except this time they didn't. The movie's not an artistic breakthrough. It won't be on anybody's 10-best list at the end of the year. But it's agreeable and engaging and real enough in the right smallish ways, and it has an emotional maturity at odds with the high-grade plastic from which it's constructed. Maybe writer-director Adam Brooks has made a fluffy Woody Allen pastiche here, but it's arguably more pleasing than anything Allen himself has done lately.
One thing "Definitely, Maybe" isn't is the family film the ads make it out to be. Yes, Abigail Breslin - Little Miss Sunshine herself - plays Maya, the young daughter of divorcing dad Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds), and yes, she cajoles him into relating How He Met Mom as a mystery romance: He'll tell her about his three great loves, names changed to protect the guilty, and she has to guess which one he married.
Most of the movie takes place in flashback, though, in a 1990s Manhattan retooled as a date-movie playland. Once you get used to 30-something actors pretending to be 10 years younger, "Definitely, Maybe" settles into a cozy rhythm. Will arrives in New York to work on the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign, pledging fidelity to Emily (Elizabeth Banks), the college sweetheart he temporarily left behind. The movie tracks his growing career success and his disenchantments with both love and politics over the years, Clinton's bimbo eruptions flying by like seasonal geese migrations.
As Emily weaves in and out of the picture, so too do a career-minded journalist named Summer (Rachel Weisz) and April (Isla Fisher), the kind of movie free spirit that used to be called "kooky" and now just seems appealingly normal. You may think you know where all this is headed and you're probably right, but the getting there is funny and occasionally moving and sometimes even recognizably human.
For that thank Fisher, who saves the movie the same way she took "Wedding Crashers" to a new level all by her lonesome. In scene after scene this petite, red-haired goofball locates a fresh line reading, an unexpected facial expression, a bit of physical business that all imply April might actually have a life outside the movie. She's the oxygen "Definitely, Maybe" desperately needs.
Additional pleasures come from Kevin Kline as Summer's much older lover, a celebrated author who drips erudite scorn on Will like acid, and Derek Luke as the hero's friend and eventual business partner. Breslin is her own sweet ungainly self, finding the emotional center of her scenes as if she'd discovered it just lying there in the palm of her hand. She has yet to learn how to be false, even in a hankie-wringer of a climax that suggests Maya's headed for either sainthood or a nervous breakdown.
The jury's still out on Reynolds, at least as far as I'm concerned. Oh, he's sharp enough and he has a knack for volleying dialogue back at oblique, sardonic angles. There's something missing from the actor, though, some wrinkle of uniqueness or eccentricity, as though he'd come out of the factory not entirely finished. Likable yet resistant to genuine expressions of risk, joy, or pain, he keeps the movie in the shallow end of the pool.
Perhaps that's where it belongs, and no shame in that. "Definitely, Maybe" is a proper Valentine's Day bonbon - a candy heart that tastes sweet, crunches nicely, and dissolves in seconds.