“Definitely, Maybe” begins with ad exec Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) being served with divorce papers and then having to explain to his precocious daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) how he and his now estranged wife hooked up in the first place. As a bedtime story. And the little girl has to figure out which of his old girlfriends wound up becoming her mommy. Which means that within the first ten minutes of the film, it’s already ripping off both “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Princess Bride.” And it’s just getting started.
Will’s memories go back to 1992 when, as a recent college graduate, he leaves Wisconsin and his hometown honey Emily (Elizabeth Banks) to go to New York to work for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. As vintage clips of Gennifer Flowers press conferences unspool in the background, Will flirts with Emily’s old pal (and onetime fling) Summer (Rachel Weisz) — who’s currently shacking up with curmudgeonly literary legend Hampton Roth (an unbilled Kevin Kline) — while exchanging banter with April (Isla Fisher), an apolitical contrarian who’s working for the campaign only because it pays better than babysitting.
Emily comes to visit, but interrupts Will’s proposal of marriage to inform him that she slept with his old roommate. Will reconnects with Summer, now just friends with Hampton, and they become a couple after she writes a glowing New York magazine cover story about the gubernatorial candidate whose campaign Will is running. But alas, she too ditches Will when he proposes, having just written a follow-up story that will ruin his candidate’s chances.
And so it goes, with Will bouncing back and forth between the three women in his life. And if the story’s so dull for us to watch, it certainly can’t be that much more compelling to Maya, although it’s a totally inappropriate tale for a father to tell his daughter, what with the sex and the smoking and the infidelity and all.
Writer-director Adam Brooks (“Almost You”) is so in love with his plot structure that he’s barely spent any time making the characters memorable or interesting. He’s managed to put a talented cast, New York City and even the entire 1990s through the blandefying machine, rendering everything as white and innocuous as that stuff they make dumplings with. Only without the spicy center. (Also, when exactly did Ryan Reynolds wind up with Kate Beckinsale’s face? No wonder he looks so much better bearded.)
The film’s final act involves young Maya striving to push daddy into the arms of the true love of his life — because, you know, young children want nothing more than to get a new mommy when the wounds of divorce are still fresh. This movie has little grasp of how human beings actually behave. And I don’t mean maybe.