There was good news this year for fans of the much-maligned chick flick: Woody Allen may have moved on to new muses London and Barcelona, but our proudest sub-genre, the smart New York City romantic comedy, is still alive and well. Ryan Reynolds, of all people, is carrying the torch.
It’s a film category with a distinguished history, represented by the likes of Allen’s Annie Hall – the last comedy to win the Oscar for Best Picture, way back in 1977 – and When Harry Met Sally, which is quite possibly the best-loved romantic comedy of all time. You could credibly argue that Seinfeld, Sex and the City and even Friends, three of the most popular and critically successful television comedies of the past two decades, are its small-screen offspring.
It’s also readily definable, by more than just its location of choice: the smart New York rom-com displays a marked preference for snappy banter over melodramatic speechmaking, an appreciation for the nuances of human relationships over ham-handed emotion, and, usually, as great an emphasis on friendship (whether co-ed or same-sex) as on romantic love. Visits to a shrink are a common theme, as are endless brunches, restaurant scenes, and long walks through recognizably, essentially “New York City” locales—all featuring the aforementioned banter.
There’s one final characteristic that defines the smart New York City romantic comedy: quality. There may be espionage thrillers that fail to thrill, and wannabe tear-jerkers that leave the tear ducts dry, but in my book, a bad attempt at a smart New York rom-com does not qualify for membership in the sub-genre. By failing to pull off the category’s requisite wit and subtlety, also-rans are banished from its ranks. So it follows that this year’s duds – 27 Dresses, the dreadful Made of Honor, and, sadly, the movie version of small-screen standout Sex and the City – are not smart New York City rom-coms.
Definitely, Maybe, on the other hand, is. The story follows Will Hayes, a freshly-divorced single dad, as he tells his daughter Maya the story of his three past loves. The twist? Will doesn’t tell Maya which of the three female leads turns out in the end to be her mother—and his freshly-minted ex-wife.
The premise certainly leaves a lot of room for overdone sentimentality, and the movie does take the odd maudlin turn. But for the most part, Definitely, Maybe moves deftly through Will’s relationships with the sweet college girlfriend Emily, the intimidating, brilliant journalist Summer, and the fun, quirky best friend, April. Ryan Reynolds carries the movie with restrained humor and emotion, and an odd sub-plot – in which the trajectory of Will’s romantic disenchantment follows roughly the same line as the deepening Clinton-Lewinsky scandal – keeps things from becoming staid or typical. Abigail Breslin is just right as the earnest, precocious Maya, and she appears only in small doses, which is how I like her.
To be clear: I am not suggesting that Definitely, Maybe is on par with Manhattan or Annie Hall, or that Adam Brooks’ light, fun, smartly-made little film will be going into the Chick Flick Hall of Fame. But in a time when the streets of Manhattan seem to have been surrendered to the embarrassing likes of Made of Honor, it’s refreshing to see a film that at least approximates the greatness of past favorites.
My favorite discovery of 2007, as I noted here last year, was another worthy New York imitator: Trust the Man. This year, there’s no doubt that my favorite unexpected find was the fun, restrained and thoughtful Definitely, Maybe. Until Woody Allen ends his European sojourn and brings his cameras home to New York, it’ll do.