Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Rachel Weisz, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks, Derek Luke and Kevin Kline. Directed by Adam Brooks. Runtime N/A. Rated PG-13.
Starring: Michel Blanc, Emmanuelle Béart, Sami Bouajila, Johan Libéreau and Constance Dollé Directed by André Téchiné. 112 min. Rating N/A.
An argument can be made that, since art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, every movie has within it some sort of inherent political/social content. It’s not exactly breaking news that non-Hollywood films are likelier to have explicit political concerns, which is why the presence of a historical/political backdrop in the slick, new romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe feels so surprising. The entire story is solidly anchored in the specifics of Democratic Party politics; and, while the Dems are hardly painted as free from corruption or hypocrisy, there are no obligatory “both sides are essentially the same” moments.
Ryan Reynolds stars as New York political-operative-turned-ad-man Will Hayes, who has just received his final divorce papers. When he arrives to pick up his 10-year-old daughter, Maya (Abigail Breslin), he finds her school in a total uproar. Apparently, most parents consider 10 to be too young an age for the kind of sex ed class the kids have had that day.
Maya seems to be handling the birds-and-bees material pretty comfortably, but it provokes her curiosity about Dad’s romantic history and the circumstances of her own conception. She forces him to tell her about the three women he has been in love with, but he gives them fake names so Maya will have to guess which one is the woman she knows as her mom.
Most of the film is Will’s visualization of the story he is telling: Since we see the women’s real faces, it can’t be Maya’s visualization; since we hear them addressed by their pseudonyms, it can’t be his literal flashback. Which means: It might be nothing more than complete bullshit Will is making up. Or it might be expurgated beyond recognition. (Why else name the hero after the bluenose who famously enforced Hollywood’s production code in the mid-’30s?)
For the record, the three women represent three types: Summer (Rachel Weisz), an intellectual; April (Isla Fisher), a “free spirit”; and Emily (Elizabeth Banks), a more conventional "nesting" type. Emily is, in fact, so uninteresting it is hard to imagine what Will finds attractive beyond her standard-issue Hollywood-babe good looks.
Even more to the point, it is hard to see what any of them see in him. Reynolds has acquitted himself nicely in a wide range of roles, from Blade: Trinity and Waiting… through Smokin’ Aces and The Nines, but his standard-issue Hollywood-guy good looks — he is Greg Kinnear with less zip — are forgettably bland, unless he is given something to work with, which writer-director Adam Brooks fails to do.
A foreign film opening this week have political backdrops that more strongly affect their stories. To label French director André Téchiné’s The Witnesses as an “AIDS drama” might be unfair pigeonholing. As always, Téchiné is interested in human intimacy, with a particular focus on families (or, at least, family-like groups). Still, the particulars here are irrevocably tied to a specific crisis during a specific period.
Children’s book author Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart) is married to police detective Mehdi (Sami Bouajila). She is good friends with Adrien (Michel Blanc), her doctor, who has fallen hard for a handsome, recently arrived young man named Manu (Johan Libéreau). Adrien claims to have accepted that Manu is not romantically interested in him, but, as always in such situations, he carries a sense of disappointment that could easily turn to jealousy and resentment — which is exactly what happens when he finds out Manu has started a passionate sexual relationship with purportedly straight “tough guy” Mehdi.
Almost lost within the background noise of the story are passing references to the mysterious new illness erupting in America. Adrien becomes deeply involved in battle against AIDS, but the disease doesn’t otherwise affect the characters until one of them develops lesions. Suddenly, everything we have seen takes on a terrifying new dimension. Minor indiscretions now have major repercussions.
Téchiné — best known in the U.S. for Wild Reeds, My Favorite Season, and Les Voleurs, all masterpieces — is interested in capturing both the period and the impact of AIDS, but, as always, his perceptions resonate beyond that limited scope. As written, none of the characters is entirely likable: Sarah seems cold; Adrien behaves at times with irresponsibility verging on the criminal; Mehdi is a hypocrite; Manu is casually tactless, a sneak and an exploiter. It is a huge credit to the actors that we end up caring about these deeply flawed individuals.