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Definitely, Maybe

Looking back, I see that I didn't say very much about Ryan Reynolds when I wrote about last year's The Nines. Chalk it up to mistrust of a pretty face. Mr Reynolds's face is blandly, boyishly handsome, well made but without any special features beyond a great smile. Perhaps the neatest summary of his gift would be that he manages to be very expressive without ever seeming to be moody or unmanly. Unlike so many very good-looking actors, Ryan Reynolds manages without smoldering bedroom eyes. He neither pouts with silky impatience nor frowns with critical disapproval.*

This is fairly risky acting, because it dispenses with today's actors' two most common techniques for creating the illusion of intelligence. This illusion may not mean much to untutored audiences, but it is crucial to adults who go to the movies often and actually think about what they see or at least about how it makes them feel. "Intelligence" here has nothing to do with great mental acuity; rather it connotes the actor's ability fully to inhabit his character, to the extent that the "acting" doesn't show. This illusion calls for immense physical imagination, and, like all skills, it is more commonly found among those who have had to work hard for success than among those whom nature has indulged with charm and grace. It would be easy to draw up a list of actors whose physiognomic endowments have obstructed their efforts to convince us that they can tell us something about anybody but themselves. We may never forget that Meryl Streep, onscreen, is Meryl Streep, but the woman's encyclopedic grasp of human experience has repeatedly and amazingly made of her body an open window on the souls of people whose rich humanity we should never otherwise see, or even guess at. Armed only with his modest, muted style, handsome Ryan Reynolds faces an uphill task when it comes to convincing us that he is, onscreen, anything but another good-looking actor hanging out in Southern California.

That's why The Nines was a great vehicle for him. In the first of that film's three segments, he plays exactly the sort of actor whom you're afraid he might actually be: self-centered and stupid. There is a wit about the dispatch with which Mr Reynolds fulfills this assignment, but he is evidently too serious an actor to wink too broadly. If there is a joke here, he is not letting on. That, in the end, is what The Nines is about: making the audience feel as confused about reality as Hollywood's denizens are said to be. Because it is an "experimental" movie as we call those films that pose the eternal question, "what if?", in a zone between naturalism and science fiction The Nines was an excellent opening gambit for Mr Reynolds's talent.

Now the star appears in a full-blown romantic comedy of unprecedented reach. Adam Brooks's very endearing Definitely, Maybe puts Mr Reynolds opposite not one but three leading ladies, and supports him with a fourth whose ability to upstage her elders seems at times helpless, as though I speak of Abigail Breslin she could no more help seizing the camera's attention than she can help breathing. It is true that the maturer leading ladies are all dazzling, often requiring no more from Mr Reynolds than a firm and reliable lift. It is also true that Mr Brooks's screenplay puts Mr Reynolds's character in some familiar showcasing situations of time-tested appeal. But this just makes it more difficult for the actor to convince us that he truly does inhabit William Hayes, a bright young man with political aspirations who winds up in advertising, signing divorce papers, with a daughter who insists on knowing the major outlines of her father's amatory history.

Here's how Ryan Reynolds convinced me that he had truly disappeared inside William Hayes: he calibrated William Hayes's growing sadness and resignation to a fine degree. In a movie that jumps back and forth between now and the Nineties, Mr Reynolds always knew where his character was on the trajectory that leads from expectation to disappointment. Guardedness and resignation accrue on William's handsome hide like barnacles, until, finally, at what ought to be the happy ending, the man wearily raises his head toward the starry gods with more exasperation than relief. As I walked out of the theatre, I felt that I had just watched one of the saddest movies in recent times. All right, happy sad sad the way we all are when we think what might have been, when we're reminded of behavior that we'd rather forget if we're not going to be allowed to redo it. Never has a romantic comedy poised more thoughtfully on the abrasiveness of time.

Definitely, Maybe recounts that amatory history, beginning with the first Clinton campaign in 1992. In now-time, William's daughter, Maya (Ms Breslin), shocked by a premature exposure to Sex Ed, demands assurance from her father that she is not a "mistake." This requires William to tell her about his "rehearsals" with other women, of whom there have been two serious partners besides Maya's mom. William agrees to tell Maya the whole story, but without making it clear to her which of the three women is the mom-to-be. Representing, in perhaps reductively schematic terms, the woman whom he'd outgrow, the one he'd never understand, and the one for whom he isn't ready when they meet, are played by Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Isla Fisher. Mr Reynolds is different with each one of them: comfortable with Ms Banks, edgily alert with Ms Weisz, and what turns out to be  just himself with Ms Fisher. Although the suggestion is made with the most tactful ellipticality, referring to William's disenchantment with Bill Clinton, William learns to see better without the rose-colored glasses of his youthful idealism. April (Ms Fisher), scrappy and sentimental by turns, "reminds" William (as Socrates "reminds" his interlocutors in the Meno) that he is scrappy and sentimental at the same time.

Great Gotham provides the perfect location, starring as the place where Americans who need the service go to find themselves. How nice that the film was actually shot here! 

There was another test. I asked myself if I could really see William kitting out Maya's well-lighted bedroom. Was William really grown-up enough to be buying furniture? It was close, but on balance I felt that he was. I know a lot of older and burlier men who aren't. (February 2008)

* Although the "Reality Television" segment of The Nines showed that Mr Reynolds can frown, with the best of them.

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