Friday, July 3, 2009

Definitely, Maybe -- the complexities of life and love

Director: Adam Brooks, 2008.

Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds, The Proposal), a successful advertising executive in New York receives a letter at his office. Divorce papers. His marriage is finally over. What a way to start a romantic comedy. With such a downer of an opening, is it worth watching the rest of the film? Definitely. Maybe.

When Will picks up his 10 year-old daughter Maya (the amazingly cute and precocious Abigail Breslin) from school, he, like the other parents, is in for a shock. She had sex ed and learned the names of the anatomical parts of adult bodies. Not what he expected. So, is this movie fit for a grade-schooler? Definitely . . . not. Unless you want them to hear all the reproductive body parts casually spoken numerous times.

Definitely, Maybe Publicity StillThat night bedtime stories take a twist. Maya wants to hear about how she came into being. "Tell me how it happened. And the real story, not the 'Oh we met, we fell in love, and we decided to take all that love and make a family, and that's how we made you.' " This from a 10 year-old! Will reluctantly agrees, and so begins the rom-com, in flashback-mode. The catch is, Will had three major loves and he won't say which one was Maya's mom, his soon-to-be ex-wife. For Maya, this is a terrific idea: "It's like a love story mystery."

Definitely, Maybe Publicity StillAll three women are vastly different in character and appearance. Emily (Elizabeth Banks) is Will's college sweetheart back in the sticks of Wisconsin. She is sweet and cloying, a dependable girl-next-door type. Blonde and beautiful, she seems perfect for the young Will who is a naive and starry-eyed aspiring politician. But when he moves to New York to serve as an intern for the local Clinton campaign, she stays behind in the mid-west.

The Big Apple is miles away from Wisconsin physically and culturally, a fact that young Will soon discovers. His work at the campaign is not the glory-seeking speech-writing he envisioned. Rather, he is toilet paper man! But in being a gopher, he meets copy girl April (Isla Fisher). She is a ginger (no disrespect to red-heads, I was one once). Free-spirited she is college-educated but an underachiever not really knowing what she wants. She is drifting along in life, needing friendship.

Definitely, Maybe Publicity StillThrough another errand, Will meets Hampton Roth (Kevin Kline), a drunken and debaucherous writer, and his current paramour is Summer (Rachel Weisz). She is the brunette, sophisticated and ambitious, a budding journalist who wants to learn what she can from her sexuagenarian lover.

In recounting this story to Maya Will makes it clear that love is not simple, certainly not as simple as Hollywood often portrays. No, love is complex. As these three women interweave themselves in Will's story over the course of a decade, his affections change with the times. But there is a truism in the complexity of love. Love takes work, it takes giving. Love takes sacrifice. Biblically love can be traced to its source -- God. God is love (1 Jn. 4:16), and the love we have to share with others comes from him (1 Jn. 4:19).

We think love is something we get, but more often it is reciprocated when we first give. And like a red rose it grows and blooms as we continue to nurture it. A typical Hollywood rom-com ends with the "happy couple" finally getting together, but that is just the start. Unless there is commitment to sustain the relationship, the romance will fade and the love will languish and be lost. Love is more than a feeling. It is an action. We can act our way into feeling, but we cannot feel our way into acting. How many times have we woken up next to a loved one and not felt particularly loving toward them? But when we bring her breakfast in bed, and her eyes sparkle with gratitude that loving feeling is suddenly rekindled.

Definitely, Maybe Publicity StillIf love is complex, so too is happiness. Will plans a number of marriage proposals. In one scene, he is practicing his proposal speech: "So, will you, um, marry me?" Clearly he needs practice as she answers him, "Definitely. Maybe." Hence the title. But how many proposals must he express before he finds happiness?

The context of the 90s backdrop paints a picture of Will's loss of innocence and descent into cynicism and unhappiness. The political babe from Wisconsin grows up amidst the scandal of Clinton's affair with Gennifer Flowers. As Clinton's later news of his sordid encounters with Monica Lewinsky and the ensuing impeachment attempts progresses, Will's cynicism becomes depression.

As he tells his story, Will does not even realize how unhappy he is. What to Maya is self-evident is a mystery to him. What may have started as an attempt to reconcile her dad and mom, becomes a mission to see her dad happy: "I want you to be happy. . . . Trust me, dad. You're not happy." Happiness involves pleasure, contentment and joy. These were all missing in his life. Several times Will cries out in despair, "What am I doing here?" In a subconsciously philosophical way, he puts his finger on one of his problems. He has no purpose. His life has no meaning.

Without purpose, life becomes drab and dull. We lose zest. We become unhappy. When we discover our purpose, our raison d'etre, we often rediscover contentment and joy. As children of God made in his image (Gen. 1:26), our purpose is integrally linked to him. Apart from him, we will never know true joy. Only in Christ can we find our joy made full (Jn. 15:11).

Writer-director Brooks does a fair job of keeping the mystery of Will's wife hidden for most of the movie. He also keeps the source of his happiness a surprise until the climax. In contrast, the writer-director of the story of our lives, of history, has revealed the mystery which allows us to find happiness (Col. 1:27). Let's hope we discover this truth before the climax of our lives!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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