Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Slick Willie in Love

Bill Clinton is a recurring presence not only as chief attack dog in his wife’s campaign, but also in writer-director Adam Brooks’ romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe. The movie is about a political consultant who starts his career working on Clinton’s campaign, and it has some things in common with the former president. It’s a little like the 1988 Clinton who, as Arkansas governor, delivered a notoriously long-winded speech at the Democratic convention that put delegates to sleep. Like that Clinton, Definitely, Maybe has an easy charm, but it tends to prattle on too long and overstay its welcome.

The movie’s hero, Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds, the smirky protagonist from Van Wilder) is an ad executive who, on the eve of finalizing his divorce, tells his inquisitive 11-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin, less cute than she was in Little Miss Sunshine) the story of three romantic relationships in his past. He changes the names of the women, and Maya offers to guess, as a game, which one became her mother.

Will’s reminiscence takes us back to 1992, when, as a Wisconsin college student, he decides to go to New York to work for Clinton, leaving behind his college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks). Though he imagines himself writing great speeches for the candidate, Will instead finds himself fetching coffee and shelving toilet paper.

Nevertheless, the city provides the callow Wisconsinite with an extraordinary number of romantic opportunities. He and campaign-office intern April (Isla Fisher) “meet cute” by the copy machine, but because he is loyal to Emily, they become just friends. He then gets involved with Emily’s former roommate, Summer (Rachel Weisz), a flinty student journalist who shares the bed of her grizzled mentor-professor, Hampton Roth (Kevin Kline, putting the “ham” in “Hampton”).

The appearance of Roth, a Hunter Thompson-style author clad in a bathrobe and urging Will to get drunk in the daylight, suggests that Will is about to receive an interesting political education. But it doesn’t happen. Politics in this movie — busy campaign offices, televised Clinton speeches, a political consulting business Will co-founds with a colleague (Derek Luke) — are merely a backdrop for Will’s rather ordinary romantic adventures. It isn’t even clear what fuels Will’s political interest, aside from a dream he had one night of being elected president. Given his nebulous principles, his later career writing ads for kids’ breakfast cereal doesn’t seem all that great a compromise.

Brooks also doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to draw connections between Will the politico and Will the lover, which would make the story more cohesive. In both realms, Will is something of an opportunist, shilling for candidates whose backgrounds he doesn’t know and buying engagement rings for every woman he dates. When at last he ends up with his “true love,” it seems like an afterthought. Was the relationship meant to be, or was she just the last on the list?

This is a very cluttered movie, with too many characters and improbable situations. Why, for example, are the 11-year-olds in Maya’s class being given a very explicit sex-education lesson? And yet it is stylish, with appealing performances and clever dialogue. There’s a particularly endearing scene in which Will and April, having escaped to a rooftop during a dull party, discuss about his plan to ask Emily to marry him. He rehearses his proposal, and April, having forced him to get down on one knee, zangs him with a pungent speech denouncing the institution of marriage. April is also given the adorable trait of collecting used editions of Jane Eyre in a quixotic search for the inscribed copy that was her dead father’s last gift.

These lovely bits suggest that the movie (like our Bill) is capable of great things, but wastes time detailing things that are ultimately irrelevant (like the Clinton healthcare plan, or Monica Lewinsky) and elides things of importance, like Will’s marriage and the reasons for his divorce.But considering that its producer, Working Title, is best known for those hokey Richard Curtis “British-for-Dummies” romances (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually), this movie, unlike most politicians, actually exceeds expectations.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

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